Few people truly understand it, and even fewer demonstrate it effectively. It's missing in the disconnected team leader, in the dysfunctional family as well.

What is "it"? The quality of empathy.

Oxford defines empathy as "the ability to understand and share the feelings of another." We often hear about the value of empathy. But think about it--it's still so rare in everyday life that when we see examples in the news, those stories often go viral.

So, why is empathy so sorely missing? One reason is that this trait is commonly misunderstood.

Empathy is often confused with its closely related cousin, sympathy. Sympathy is akin to compassion, and it can prove beneficial. When a colleague loses a loved one, for example, we show sympathy by writing a card or expressing ourselves in another way.

But then, we move on. Sympathy is limited in that it doesn't really affect our everyday dealings with our colleague.

Empathy is different. In the above situation, it begins when we take time to remember how we felt when we lost someone close to us (or how we would feel, if we haven't had this experience). We think about how this affected our work, our relationships with others.

It doesn't stop there. To truly show empathy, we must try to imagine how our colleague feels in this situation. We recognize that he (like every individual) will deal with the trauma in his own, unique way. When he takes longer than usual to respond to an email or his performance at work suffers, you remind yourself of the situation he's going through.

Then, you allow those feelings to affect your actions. If your relationship is close, it may mean providing a listening ear. In other cases, it's simply giving your colleague space to heal, and reducing your expectations for a while.

Empathy has been described as "your pain in my heart."

But how does empathy help you beyond the situation mentioned above?

Here are some suggestions for applying empathy, practically:

  • If you're a manager, the next time an employee comes to you with a problem or complaint, resist the "Not again. What now?" attitude. Remember: You've felt the same way when dealing with a problem of your own. Ask yourself: What can I do to make things better?
  • If you don't understand the problem, go the extra mile until you do. Maybe work alongside the disgruntled team member for a while. Showing empathy in this way takes time, but you will motivate the one you are trying to help. If you do it sincerely, you'll gain his or her loyalty.
  • If you are an employee who feels your manager is unreasonable, try to understand why. Look for an opportunity to express appreciation for the manager's work. Be authentic. When you show empathy for this person, he or she will notice. In time, this person will be moved to do the same for you.

It's important to remember that whenever we work on a team, various points of view are involved. Of course, each of us has the tendency to see things from our own perspective: My problem is bigger than the other person's. The problem is, that's what the other person is thinking too. (We call this the perspective gap, and it's surprising how deeply it affects each of us. Read more about that here.)

Instead of fighting to get others to see things our way, why not proactively show empathy? Phrases like, "Sorry, I'm not getting it. Show me what you mean" go a long way. When we put forth the effort to understand another person, he or she will naturally reciprocate.

Because after all, both perspectives are right. They're simply viewed from different vantage points. And therein lays the key to empathy:

To get others to see the world through your eyes, you must first learn to see it through theirs.