Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 6, Issue 1;   January 4, 2006: The Uses of Empathy

The Uses of Empathy

by

Last updated: August 8, 2018

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.

Order from AmazonFor 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. Order from Amazon.com

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More articles on Emotions at Work:

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Great leaders know what to say, what not to say, and when to say or not say it, sometimes with stunning effect. Consistently effective leadership requires superior empathy skills. Here are some things to do to improve your empathy skills.
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When we influence others as they're making tough decisions, it's easy to enter a gray area. How can we be certain that our influence isn't manipulation? How can we influence others ethically?
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Just as important as keeping the peace with your colleagues is making peace again when it has been broken by strife. Nations have peace treaties. People make up. Here are some tips for making up.
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As we've seen, some cognitive biases can contribute to the incidence of scope creep in projects and other efforts. Confirmation bias, which causes us to prefer evidence that bolsters our preconceptions, is one of these.

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Feeling shameComing December 19: Embarrassment, Shame, and Guilt at Work: Creation
Three feelings are often confused with each other: embarrassment, shame, and guilt. To understand how to cope with these feelings, begin by understanding what different kinds of situations we use when we create these feelings. Available here and by RSS on December 19.
Inside the space station flight control room (FCR-1) in the Johnson Space Center's Mission Control CenterAnd on December 26: Embarrassment, Shame, and Guilt at Work: Coping
Coping effectively with feelings of embarrassment, shame, or guilt is the path to recovering a sense of balance that's the foundation of clear thinking. And thinking clearly at work is important if you want to avoid feeling embarrassment, shame, or guilt. Available here and by RSS on December 26.

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