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Volume 6, Issue 1;   January 4, 2006: The Uses of Empathy

The Uses of Empathy

by

Last updated: July 18, 2019

Even though empathy skills are somewhat undervalued in the workplace context, we do use them, for good and for ill. What is empathy? How is it relevant at work?
An iceberg in Antarctica's Gerlache Strait, March 1962

An iceberg in Antarctica's Gerlache Strait, March 1962. Photo by Rear Admiral Harley D. Nygren, NOAA Corps (ret.), courtesy U.S. NOAA Photo Library.

Ginny waited patiently while Mort dipped another chip into the slightly-too-hot salsa and ate it. She knew that whatever he said would be worth the wait, because Mort had an almost-magical talent for inspiring teams. He picked up another chip and paused over the salsa.

"Inspiring people is simple," he began. "But you have to be where they are. That's why great generals eat what the troops eat."

Ginny had a vague idea of what he meant. "Be where they are. And by that you mean…"

"You have a sense of how they'll interpret what you say," Mort said. "And how they feel about the challenge, and what they're willing and able to do."

Ginny was beginning to get it. "Sounds a lot like empathy, but not so squishy."

Mort lit up. "Well, it is empathy, but in a broader sense than the usual squishy one."

Inspiring others is
a critical leadership
skill — one that
depends on empathy
Inspiring others is a critical leadership skill — one that depends on the ability to empathize with the people you want to lead.

Empathy is appreciating the inner state of others. We often associate empathy with a sensing of others' feelings, but because feelings are only part of our inner state, empathy is much more than appreciation of feelings.

One model of inner state is the Personal Iceberg, used by Virginia Satir and articulated later by her colleagues. In this model, inner state is a hierarchy of copings, feelings, perceptions, expectations, yearnings, and ultimately the Self. They called it an "iceberg" because so much of it is out of view. Empathy is appreciating all of these elements in others.

We need empathy not only to inspire others, but also when we're figuring out how to express something, or even whether to express it. While we're deciding, we need a sense of what the impacts of various options might be, which requires empathy. Here are some other applications of empathy skills.

Framing a message
To communicate effectively, it helps to have a feel for how your message will land, whether it's an apology, persuasion, congratulations, or something painful.
Timing and not-timing
Empathy helps you know when to act, and when not to act.
Leading, motivating, inspiring, and deterring
If your goal is to energize (or inhibit) others, the choices you make are more effective if you take into account the personal icebergs of those others.
Detecting overload
The usual indicators of overload are burnout or error rates. Empathy can help you detect overload before the damage is done.
Negotiating and dealing with conflict
Reaching solutions that appeal to all parties is easier with an understanding of the inner experience of all parties. Empathy helps.

OK, so empathy's a great thing, but how can we improve empathy skills? I'll cover that in a coming issue. Go to top Top  Next issue: Nine Project Management Fallacies: IV  Next Issue

Rick BrennerThe article you've been reading is an archived issue of Point Lookout, my weekly newsletter. I've been publishing it since January, 2001, free to all subscribers, over the Web, and via RSS. You can help keep it free by donating either as an individual or as an organization. You'll receive in return my sincere thanks — and the comfort of knowing that you've helped to propagate insights and perspectives that can help make our workplaces a little more human-friendly. More

For more about empathy and developing empathic skill, see "Peek-a-Boo and Leadership," Point Lookout for August 30, 2006.

The Satir Model: Family Therapy and BeyondFor more on the Personal Iceberg, see V. Satir, J. Banmen, J. Gerber and M. Gomori, The Satir Model: Family Therapy and Beyond. Palo Alto: Science and Behavior Books, 1991.

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See also Emotions at Work, Effective Communication at Work and Conflict Management for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

An onion, sliced and dicedComing December 11: The Rhyme-as-Reason Effect
When we speak or write, the phrases we use have both form and meaning. Although we usually think of form and meaning as distinct, we tend to assess as more meaningful and valid those phrases that are more beautifully formed. The rhyme-as-reason effect causes us to confuse the validity of a phrase with its aesthetics. Available here and by RSS on December 11.
Winston Churchill in the Canadian Parliament, December 30, 1941And on December 18: The Trap of Beautiful Language
As we assess the validity of others' statements, we risk making a characteristically human error — we confuse the beauty of their language with the reliability of its meaning. We're easily thrown off by alliteration, anaphora, epistrophe, and chiasmus. Available here and by RSS on December 18.

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