Before you criticize someone, try walking a mile in his or her shoes.

Chances are, you've heard that proverbial advice in one form or another. One could say it perfectly illustrates the quality of empathy, a hallmark trait of those with high emotional intelligence (EI or EQ)--the ability that allows you to recognize emotions, understand their effect, and use that information to guide thinking and behavior.

But although most of us consider empathy a valuable and basic human trait, it often goes missing in day-to-day life. Just think of the major disconnect between many managers and their teams. Or how it's so easy to hurt those whom we love, simply because we can't see things from their perspective.

Understanding the difference.

Sympathy is defined by Merriam-Webster as "the feeling that you care about and are sorry about someone else's trouble, grief, misfortune, etc.", or "a feeling of support for something." In contrast, empathy is "the feeling that you understand and share another person's feelings and emotions." 

Sympathy is a great quality and can be extremely useful, but it's limited.  For example, imagine a colleague goes through a difficult personal situation, such as a divorce or the loss of a family member. We naturally feel sympathy. We may even write a card or attempt to express our feelings somehow (sometimes awkwardly). For the most part, though, we move on with our lives.

Showing empathy takes more time, and requires more effort. We have to remember how it felt when we went through similar circumstances (or how we would feel, if we haven't had this experience). We strive to remember how this affected our work and our relationships. Even further, we try to imagine specifically how our colleague feels in this situation, recognizing that every individual will deal with things in his or her own way.

Empathy moves us to be more understanding and helps us to be better managers and leaders.

"When you show deep empathy toward others, their defensive energy goes down, and positive energy replaces it. That's when you can get more creative in solving problems."--Stephen Covey

"Empathy is about standing in someone else's shoes, feeling with his or her heart, seeing with his or her eyes. Not only is empathy hard to outsource and automate, but it makes the world a better place."--Daniel H. Pink

But showing empathy isn't as easy as it sounds. The problem is, despite the fact that we yearn for others to try fitting into our shoes, we're often not ready to do the same for them. We see this every day in the form of broken marriages, strained parent-child relationships, and deteriorating communication in the workplace. (To understand more about the "why" behind this, you can read about what's called "the perspective gap".)

So how can you work on becoming more empathetic? Here are a few suggestions:

Work to understand.

Rather than dismiss someone else's problem as complaining, it helps to try to remember how you felt the last time you were severely frustrated by a situation.

Of course, at times our own experience can hinder our ability to show empathy. For instance, if we've dealt much better with a set of circumstances in the past than another person is currently, we might think, Well, what's the big deal?

The key is to try to relate.

"The point is to remember a situation in which you felt the same way, not necessarily the same experience," says Dr. Hendrie Weisinger, best-selling author of Emotional Intelligence at Work"If a person says, 'I screwed up a presentation,' I don't think of a time I screwed up a presentation--which I have, and thought, no big deal. Rather, I think of a time I did feel I screwed up, maybe on a test or something else important to me."

"It is the feeling of when you failed that you want to recall, not the event," continues Dr. Weisinger. "Remember, you can never feel what the other person experiences. That's why, 'I know how you feel' is a silly statement."

In other words, try your best to relate the other person's feelings to similar feelings of your own. Then use that as motivation to help. 

Put yourself in their shoes--literally.

If a specific task or process is causing problems, try to work alongside a disgruntled team member, to better understand the person's point of view. Is a change at work causing them problems? Just 15 or 20 minutes working together can do wonders toward helping you to feel their pain.

Showing empathy in this way takes time, but you will often motivate the one(s) you are trying to help just by showing that you care enough to take this step.

Don't freeze them in time.

Remember that people, their feelings, and their circumstances change.

A member of your team may benefit from having a break from certain tasks for a period of time, but that doesn't mean he or she is now incapable or that they are unwilling to take those tasks in the near future. And other individuals may want those very tasks as a distraction from whatever situation is bothering them.

Keep the lines of communication open, and adapt as necessary. 

Putting It into Practice

There's a place and time for sympathy, but you'll go a lot further with empathy. In fact, cultivating empathy will do wonders for your relationships. Why?

Because in most cases, empathy begets empathy. When you work hard to walk in another person's shoes, they'll be moved to do the same for you.

And that gets the best out of everyone.

Published on: Apr 21, 2016