The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place. -George Bernard Shaw                                   

Early in my career, as a university professor, I was responsible for training and developing counselors for work in schools, colleges, and community agencies. An essential competency that we helped counselors IMAG0002-2develop was communicating empathy to a client. Not easy to do but absolutely necessary for helping another person learn how to achieve self-awareness and make the personal decisions that will improve their lives.

I’m pleased to see that empathy is being recognized as a vital manager competency in the workplace. One might think that in this age of automation and robots, that the quality of human interaction and mutual understanding are becoming less important. Actually, the opposite is true. With much of the routine work being done by machines, people are being freed up to do knowledge work which requires more and higher quality interpersonal interaction than ever. Norbert Schwieters and Bob Moritz write that the tenth principle for leading the next industrial revolution is “Put Humanity Before Machines.”

David Grebow and I have called this the historical shift from “managing hands” to “managing minds.” The manager’s job today is less about producing things and more about developing people so that they can collaborate with others to apply creativity and innovation to the fast pace of technological change, globalization, and a diverse and multi-generational workforce. And in order to facilitate development of people with this capacity, managers need to help people learn, and this requires empathy.

Empathy is not an easy competency to learn. Let’s look at a definition:

the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within the other person's frame of reference, i.e., the capacity to place oneself in another's position. Empathy is seeing with the eyes of another, listening with the ears of another and feeling with the "heart" of another.

This ability is often characterized as walking in another person’s shoes. In the workplace, empathy is when a manager or co-worker communicates this deep level of understanding to another person so that the person feels like he or she is being understood, that somebody cares about her, that she is not alone, and that the she has the level of self-understanding needed to make good decisions.

Empathy is not sympathy. Sympathy is communicating how we would feel if we were in that person’s situation. When we make statements such as, “I know what you mean. I know how you feel. I had the same thing happen to me and this is what I did,” we are expressing sympathy, not empathy. Humans are generally pretty good at sympathy.

Empathy is another matter. Empathy means suspending the judgmental conversation we all constantly have with ourselves in our heads (“To really listen, you must first be silent.”), listening intently to the meaning and feelings behind the words (and nonverbal cues) that someone is saying or writing, and then communicating what is being heard back to that person for further clarification and validation. This is a quality of interpersonal exchange unlike anything that is typical of normal conversation. It’s the difference between advocacy and inquiry.

Empathy can be learned. First of all, you must believe in the ability of people to learn and grow from reflecting on their own experiences. Then you must listen deeply to the other person and ask yourself, “What does he really mean by what he is saying? How does he truly feel about his situation? Is he confident or scared, happy or sad, engaged or detached? What can I say that will help us check out if I’m hearing him accurately?

So when people talk about the need for more empathy in companies, they need to be aware of the challenge. People can learn to be more empathic, but it takes coaching and practice, as with any skill that is worth learning.