There’s been quite a bit of hype in the corporate arena lately about the importance of leaders displaying empathy for others. While I agree that empathy is the most valuable skill you can posses, the problem is that there’s confusion about what empathy actually is, and what to do with it.

The most common mistake I’ve seen is that people are confusing empathy with sympathy. I’ve read a lot of articles that talk about the importance of empathy, and then go on to advise that managers speak more kindly to their staff and exercise more patience and understanding.

I’m not saying that speaking kindly and exercising patience are bad things to do; what I’m saying is that they have nothing to do with empathy.

The truth is that empathy is the ability to understand the emotions of others. That’s it. It doesn’t go further into how you react or respond to those emotions. Empathy is simply the ability to understand what someone else is feeling.

It’s important to differentiate between the two because sympathy, while at times useful, isn’t always the best response and can actually cause problems if overused.

If you always respond with sympathy, then you will miss opportunities to support and develop your staff to move through and solve their own problems. It can also create scenarios in which staff take advantage of sympathetic supervisors and managers.

If you’re looking to develop your level of empathy, and utilise it properly within your organisation, I’d suggest keeping the following things in mind:

  • Ask questions: Don’t assume that you’re right when you are interpreting what someone else is feeling. Ask them questions and follow through with good communication skills. The ensuing conversation could prove helpful to whoever it is you’re asking the questions of.
  • It’s not about being nice: It’s ok to be nice but it’s important to make sure that “being nice” isn’t your default setting. You can empathise with someone and still make it clear that you’re not okay with their behavior or something that they’ve done.
  • Communicate: A great way to develop empathy among your staff is to engage in, and encourage, open communication. Let them know they can talk to you about what’s going on for them or if they’re having a problem. The cliche exists for a reason – communication is key.
  • Don’t do it alone: If you’re the business owner or a manager, and you’re looking into the value of empathy and communication skills, share that with your team! Talk to them about what you’re learning and what you want to implement. When you’re all on the same page, you can get really fantastic cooperation happening.

While empathy is important, the truth is that it’s still an assumption. You might intuitively see that someone is feeling stressed out; if you don’t ask about it though, then it’s just an assumption.

Regardless of how important the skill of empathy is, without good communication it’s completely useless.