As an executive coach and consultant, my clients often ask me why empathy is so important.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines empathy as:
The action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.
Do you know why empathy is important, or what it is?
Here is Why Empathy is Important
Empathy is one of the most important aspects of creating strong relationships, reducing stress, and enhancing emotional awareness – yet it can be tricky at times.
For example, how can you be empathetic towards people you may not necessarily agree with?
I consider myself to be an empathetic person, but I notice that with certain people and in particular situations, my natural ability and desire to empathize can be diminished or almost non-existent, especially these days.
But there are so many benefits to empathy that most people aren’t even aware of. For example, I also notice that when I feel empathy for others and for myself, I feel a sense of peace, connection, and perspective that I like. And, when there is an absence of empathy in a particular relationship, situation, or in how I’m relating to myself, I often experience stress, disconnection, and negativity.
Can you relate?
Never underestimate the power of empathy.
But what is empathy anyway?
It’s important to understand that empathy is not sympathy.
When we’re sympathetic, we often pity someone else but maintain our distance (physically, mentally, and emotionally) from their feelings or experience.
Empathy is more a sense that we can truly understand, relate to, or imagine the depth of another person’s emotional state or situation.
It implies feeling with a person, rather than feeling sorry for a person.
Empathy is a translation of the German term Einfühlung, meaning “to feel as one with.” It implies sharing the load, or “walking a mile in someone else’s shoes,” in order to understand that person’s perspective.
The Benefits of Empathy
Another reason why empathy is so important is that it’s one of the best ways we can enhance our relationships, reduce our stress levels, and feel good about ourselves and our lives in an authentic way. Here are a few more benefits of empathy:
- Benefits your health (less stress and less negativity which leads people to be in better shape with stronger immune systems)
- Leads to a happier life
- Improves communications skills
- Leads to teamwork
- Creates a healthy work environment
- Transcends personal relationships
- Decreases negativity
Why Do People Lack Empathy?
There are a number of things that get in the way of us utilizing and experiencing the power of empathy. Three of the main ones, which are all interrelated, are as follows:
1. Feeling Threatened
We often feel “threatened” based on our own fears, projections, and past experiences – not by what is actually happening in the moment or in a particular relationship or situation. Whether the threat is “real” or “imagined,” when we feel threatened in any way, it often shuts down our ability to experience empathy.
2. Being Judgmental
Being judgmental is a totally different game than making value judgments (what to wear, what to eat, what to say, etc.).
When we’re judgmental, we decide that we’re “right” and someone else is “wrong.” Doing this hurts us and others and it cuts us off from those around us. When we’re being judgmental about another person, group of people, or situation, we significantly diminish our capacity to be empathetic.
Can you guess the root of all of this?
It’s our fear.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with fear, it’s a natural human emotion – which, in fact, has many positive aspects to it, if we’re willing to admit it, own it, express it, and move through it. Fear saves our lives and keeps us out of trouble all the time.
The issue with fear is our denial of it. We deem things, people, or situations to be “scary,” when in truth there is nothing in life that is inherently “scary.” When we allow ourselves to be motivated by fear – which often leads to us defending ourselves against “threats,” being judgmental, and more – it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to access the power of empathy.
On my podcast, I often talk about the importance of embracing our emotions. The more willing we are to look at our fear, acknowledge it, embrace it, own it, and take responsibility for it, the more able we are to expand our capacity for empathy.
Signs That Someone Lacks Empathy
Here are some signs that someone lacks empathy.
- Highly critical of others
- Unable to control emotions
- Unaware of other people’s feelings
- Accuses people of being overly sensitive
- Overreacts to small things
- Won’t admit when wrong
- Behaves insensitively
- Has trouble maintaining relationships
- Can’t handle uncomfortable situations
- Sees perceived slights everywhere
The reason why empathy is so important is that it helps us better understand how others are feeling, and even feel it in ourselves. It helps us maintain relationships and plays a role in dictating our success in both personal and professional relationships.
A lack of empathy can also be a trait of personality disorders like narcissism or antisocial personality disorder.
People may lack empathy due to the environment they were raised in. They may have grown up with parents who could not regulate their emotions and showed very little compassion towards them. They may have also experienced difficult situations in life that caused them to lack empathy and behave the way they do.
How to Become More Empathetic
Here are a few things you can do and think about to become more empathetic:
1. Be Real About How You Feel
When we’re in a conflict with another person or dealing with someone or something that’s challenging for us, being able to admit, own, and express our fear, insecurity, sadness, anger, jealousy, or whatever other “negative” emotions we are experiencing, is one of the best ways for us to move past our defensiveness and authentically address the deeper issues of the situation.
Doing this allows us to access empathy for ourselves, the other person or people involved, and even the circumstances of the conflict or challenge itself. Check out this blog post for tips on how to resolve conflict.
2. Imagine What It’s Like For Them
While it can sometimes be difficult for us to “understand” another person’s perspective or situation, being able to imagine what it must be like for them is an essential aspect of empathy.
The more willing we are to imagine what it’s like for them, the more compassion, understanding, and empathy we’ll be able to experience.
In today’s uncertain political climate and the many stresses that come with a pandemic, it is more important now than ever before to use compassion every day. You can learn more about the importance of compassion here.
My most recent book, We’re All in This Together, helps leaders become more compassionate with their team members by giving them a roadmap for building trust, collaborating, and operating at a peak level. Learn more about the book here.
3. Forgive Yourself and Others
In another one of my books, Nothing Changes Until You Do, I talk about the complicated relationship we all have with ourselves and the struggle many of us have to be kind, compassionate, and loving towards ourselves. Forgiveness is one of the most important things we can do in life to heal ourselves, let go of negativity, and live a life of peace and fulfillment. Forgiveness has to first start with us.
I believe that all judgment is self-judgment. When we forgive ourselves, we create the conditions and perspective to forgive others.
Forgiveness is one of the many important aspects of life that is often easier said than done. It is something we need to learn about and practice all the time.
One of the best books you can read on this subject is called Forgive For Good, written by my friend and mentor Dr. Fred Luskin, one of the world’s leading experts and teachers about the power of forgiveness. This book gives you practical and tangible techniques you can use to forgive anyone and anything.
The more willing we are to forgive ourselves and others (and continue to practice this in an ongoing way), the more able we’ll be to empathize authentically.
Questions to Ask Yourself:
- How empathetic are you?
- What can you do to enhance your capacity for empathy?
- How would an increased ability to empathize with others (and yourself) impact your life and relationships?
- Where in your life and relationships can you see that feeling threatened, being judgmental, and experiencing fear stop you from being empathetic?
Share your thoughts, ideas, insights, and more in the comments section below.
I have written five books about, among other things, the importance of empathy, authenticity, and appreciation. I deliver keynotes and seminars (both in-person and virtually) that empower people, leaders, and teams to grow, connect, and perform their best. As an expert in teamwork, leadership, and emotional intelligence, I teach techniques that allow people and organizations to be more engaged and effective. Find out more about how I can help you and your team achieve your goals today.
This article was originally published on October 13, 2010, and has been updated for 2021.
We find ourselves in a precarious moment politically here in the United States right now. In the midst of a global pandemic, a new Presidential administration, a pending impeachment trial, calls for both accountability and unity, and so much more.
The intense divisiveness that has built up in our country in recent weeks, months, and years, seems to be at an all-time high, and the real impact of this is not only playing out in Washington DC, but in our own relationships, families, teams, and communities.
As I write about in my latest book, We’re All in This Together, while it isn’t easy or often encouraged in a real healthy and productive way, our ability to connect with people who see things differently than we do, politically and otherwise, is so important, especially right now.
I was on a plane a few years ago flying from Fort Lauderdale to New York. I’d spoken at two events in south Florida, was flying up to New York for some meetings, then on to Boston for another event, and then back to Florida for my final event before heading home. It was a crazy but exciting week. I was in full-on work/travel mode, which means I had tunnel vision—focused just on getting to where I needed to get to, taking care of myself physically so I’d be ready to go when it was time to speak, and getting as much work done as possible while on my flights and in my hotel rooms.
I was working on my laptop even as people were still boarding the plane that afternoon. Sitting on the aisle, I had to get up when the two people who were in the window and middle seat came to sit down. I greeted them briefly. They were together—a man who looked to be in his mid-50s and a woman who looked to be close to 80, whom I assumed was his mother.
As the flight began to take off, I had to put my computer away and wait for the plane to get to 10,000 feet before I could start working again, so I started flipping channels on the live TV in front of me. I landed on CNN and was catching up on the news of the day. We reached 10,000 feet and I pulled my laptop out and began to work. I had e-mails to catch up on and I was reviewing my latest podcast episode—so I pulled my headphones out of the airplane armrest and plugged them into my computer.
About 10 minutes later, out of the corner of my eye, I saw the man sitting to my right in the window seat motioning toward the TV screen in front of me. It was still showing CNN, but I wasn’t paying attention to it and couldn’t hear it since my headphones were plugged into my laptop. Then I heard him say, “Fake news, fake news!” I wasn’t sure if he was talking to me, to his mom, or just talking out loud to himself. So, I ignored him and kept working. Then he did it again, this time more demonstratively, his voice getting louder as he pointed at the screen.
I stopped what I was doing, took out my ear buds, turned to him, and asked, “Are you talking to me?”
“Yes! CNN is fake news. It’s just a bunch of liberal propaganda.”
I was a bit taken aback by his intensity. He seemed angry, and I wasn’t sure what to do. I felt nervous, but also intrigued. He and his mom both had the TVs in front of them turned to Fox News. I said, “I notice you’re watching Fox.”
“It’s the only honest news on TV,” he said passionately.
At this moment I realized I had a choice. There were various ways I could avoid getting into an argument with him. I also had a ton of work that I needed to get done. But my heart and mind were racing—I felt scared and defensive, but also excited and curious. I wanted to see where this conversation might go and what might happen, so I said, “Well, I’d be careful if I were you. I’ve read some studies that say people who consistently watch Fox are the most misinformed news viewers in America.” As you can imagine, he didn’t appreciate this comment.
“Oh, I see, you’re one of those liberal elites who thinks he knows everything.”
And then we were off to the races from there. We argued about Donald Trump, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, immigration, the economy, climate change, the military, guns, the police, and a number of other issues. I tried to stay calm and not get defensive, but that didn’t work so well. He continued to call me names and it got heated.
It was an odd and interesting experience to find myself in a pretty aggressive debate with this man whom I hadn’t known an hour before. And while I wasn’t concerned for my safety in any way, I did find it uncomfortable and upsetting. I also didn’t really enjoy being called “wimpy,” “whiney,” “snowflake,” and other things.
As the conversation escalated, I finally said, “Stop! Look, we clearly disagree in some pretty fundamental ways about these issues. But my deeper concern is that here we are, two strangers sitting on an airplane, and you’re calling me names simply because we disagree about politics.”
Then I shifted gears completely and asked him a question. “Do you have children?” He looked at me with surprise and said, “What?”
“Do you have kids?” I asked again.
“Yes,” he said. “I have four.”
“Wow,” I said. “That’s great. We have two young daughters.”
“We have two boys and two girls,” he said. “Our oldest is thirty and the other three are in their twenties.”
“So, you’ve been at the parenting thing much longer than I have,” I said. “I worry sometimes that I’m doing things (or not doing things) that might be messing up our girls. I try to do the best I can, but sometimes I wonder if I’m doing a good job as a father.” Then I asked him, “Do you ever worry about that, or did you when your kids were younger?”
He paused, looked at me in a different way than he’d been looking at me, and didn’t answer the question initially. Eventually he said, “Of course. I think every parent feels that way at some point.”
“I suppose you’re right,” I said. “Maybe, just like as a father I try to do the best I can and think my ideas, decisions, and actions are right, with respect to some of these big political issues, I have strong opinions, but I’m not sure I know what the solutions are. Some of these challenges are so large and complex, it’s possible that the answers are much bigger and more involved than I can even understand.”
At this moment, he was looking at me like I was a little crazy, but there seemed to be some recognition of what I was saying in his eyes. He said, “I guess?”
We both laughed a little, there was an awkward silence between us, and after almost 45 minutes of arguing, we just stopped. I went back to my laptop and he went back to chatting softly with his mom.
As my heart rate came down and I sat there reflecting on the intense conversation that had just taken place, a few thoughts came to mind. First of all, I had no idea if either of us convinced the other of anything. I didn’t walk away agreeing with his ideas or political views, and I doubt he did with mine. However, I did learn a bit more about where he was coming from and felt the anger, fear, and frustration he had about the media, the country, and the state of politics, which was actually enlightening for me on a number of levels. This man who was more than 10 years older than I am, a father of four, and a fire fighter from Long Island had a very different background and worldview than mine.
Second of all, when I was being self-righteous and defensive, it was hard for me to listen, hear, understand, and connect with him in any way. However, when we talked about our children, the conversation got more vulnerable and real, and I was able to find some common ground with him, which allowed us to, momentarily at least, connect with each other—human being to human being, father to father. And in that instant, I felt more empathy, compassion, and understanding for this man sitting across from me, even though we fundamentally disagreed about some pretty important issues.
Our country and our world are intensely divided right now. Although getting into arguments with strangers may not be the most productive route (especially on social media), the only way we’re going to bridge this divide is if we’re willing to have these important and often uncomfortable discussions directly with each other.
If we have the courage and commitment, we can find common ground and when we do, we can have more awareness, insight, and appreciation for those who see things differently than we do. I’m not talking about selling out on what we believe or biting on tongue on the issues that matter most to us. I’m talking about being real.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “We have very little morally persuasive power with those who can feel our underlying contempt.”
The secret to connecting with people across the political aisle is operating with authenticity. This means that we’re willing to be honest, self-aware enough to remove our self-righteousness, and have the courage to be vulnerable.
Feel free to leave a comment, question, or piece of feedback below.
This is an adapted excerpt from We’re All in This Together, by Mike Robbins, published by Hay House Business, April 2020
I don’t think I’ve ever been so ready for a year to end. How about you?
What a challenging, bizarre, and painful time it has been in our country and our world. And, as 2020 wraps up, it’s easy to just say “good riddance” and hope for brighter days ahead.
However, as difficult as this year has been for us collectively, and for many of us personally, it’s important for us to acknowledge all that’s happened, as well as our growth and the fact that we made it through.
On a recent episode of my podcast, I reflect on this unprecedented year and share a powerful process and set of questions we can ask ourselves to bring real closure and completion to 2020.
I’ve been doing a version of this process at the end of the year for the past two decades. Conscious completion is important and allows us to step into the New Year more powerfully.
Here are some questions you can ask and answer yourself, as a way to create a sense of closure for 2020:
- What were my biggest lessons in 2020?
- What am I most proud of from this past year?
- What were my biggest disappointments in 2020?
- What am I ready to let go of from this past year?
- What else do I need to do or say to be complete with 2020?
See if you can create some sacred time in the next few days to think about and write down your answers to these questions. You can also share your answers with some of the important people around you (and maybe ask them to answer them as well).
By creating a conscious intention for completion, you give yourself the gift of reflection and maybe even some appreciation for this past year. Doing this allows a space to open up in which to create your intentions for 2021 with a sense of openness and peace.
This year has been like nothing we’ve ever experienced before…and we’re still in the midst of an incredibly uncertain time.
Even with all that has happened and is still happening, there is so much for us to reflect upon that we can be grateful for and so many ways we’ve grown and changed this year.
No matter how painful or bumpy it was…you made it through this year. Be gentle with yourself and others. And, remember, we’re all in this together!
How will you consciously complete 2020? What can you do or say to leave 2020 behind you in an authentic way? Feel free to leave your thoughts, ideas, and feelings below in the comments.
This has been an election like we’ve never seen here in the United States, in the midst of a year like we’ve never experienced.
I’m grateful that President-Elect Joe Biden is calling for cooperation, unity, and healing. However, what has become abundantly clear over the course of the past few days, weeks, and months, is that we’re a deeply divided nation.
And while we already knew this going into the election, my hope and prayer is that things can change in this regard as we move forward. Coming together is going to take a lot of work on all of our parts, but I believe it is necessary for so many reasons.
Mother Teresa said, “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” This is true in our families, our teams, our organizations, our communities, our country, and our world.
I wrote my book, We’re All in This Together, for a few different reasons. One of my main intentions was to remind us that we’re way more alike than we are different and that togetherness, while incredibly challenging at times, is necessary for us to thrive – individually and collectively.
Yes, we have some fundamental differences. And, we have some serious issues to resolve, problems to address, and things to change, for sure. Yet, at the same time, there is so much that binds us as Americans and human beings.
As I talked about on a recent podcast episode, for us to authentically confront these challenges and to make meaningful change, it’s going to require us to shift from our us versus them mentality, and remember that there really is no them, it’s all us.
And while we can’t control how the leaders in Washington behave, as well as the nature of the discourse in the media, we can definitely adjust the way we personally operate, communicate, and interact with those around us, as well as on social media.
Here are some things we can think about, focus on, and do, to help us move forward…together:
1. Reach out to those who voted differently – Although the final vote count is still coming in, we know that more than 70 million people voted for each of the candidates. If we’re willing to reach out and check in with people in our lives who may have voted differently than we did, we can learn a bit more about where they’re coming from, how they’re feeling, and figure out how to come together, even with our different perspectives, ideas, and beliefs.
2. Operate with compassion – Emotions are running high these days – due to the pandemic, social unrest, economic uncertainty, and more – in addition to the election. By engaging with others compassionately, not only can we more fully understand them, we make it safer and easier to connect in authentic and effective ways, especially with people who see things differently than we do. Compassion is about relating to others emotionally and having empathy for their experience, not necessarily agreeing with them or seeing things the same way. Right now things are intense, scary, and challenging for most of us and for many different reasons. Let’s be gentle with ourselves and with others.
3. Remove self-righteousness – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “We have no morally persuasive power with those who can feel our underlying contempt for them.” In order to understand and influence people who think differently than we do, we have to let go of our divisive self-righteousness, and shift it to healthy conviction. We have important issues to discuss and debate, but making people wrong doesn’t lead to connection, cooperation, or togetherness…it just further separates us from one another.
4. Look for and find common ground – The dividing lines of liberal versus conservative and red state versus blue state are reinforced all over the place these days. Remembering that we’re all Americans and as human beings we have so much common ground with one another is essential. We may look, think, pray, act, believe, and vote differently, but we actually have way more that brings us together than divides us. Our job is to look for and find these commonalities, and to use them as the foundation for our discussions and debates.
Although it may not always seem like it, especially right now, I believe that we truly are all in this together. And, operating from this perspective is what will allow us to create more unity, connection, and positive change as we move forward during this critical time in the history of our country and our world.
Recently I’ve found myself getting into some infuriating debates on social media (mostly with fellow white folks) about racism, law enforcement, the current state of our country, and, specifically, the #BlackLivesMatter movement.
I’m usually pretty good at not engaging with people and in discussions that don’t seem respectful or productive. I’m all up for healthy debate, for being challenged, and for trying to influence people. I’m also passionate about finding common ground and working to see things from different perspectives. These are some of the main reasons I wrote my most recent book, We’re All in This Together, and wanted it come out in 2020, in the midst of this incredibly divisive time.
Last night someone I don’t know came at me aggressively on Instagram and instead of just ignoring it, I went down the rabbit hole for a while and got really triggered and angry. Thankfully, my wife Michelle talked me down and helped me disengage.
As I tried to calm down and got into bed, I cracked open our friend Glennon Doyle’s book, Untamed, and happened to open it right to a chapter called “racists.” As I read, I began to breath more deeply. She beautifully articulated a few things in this chapter that really resonated with me.
Close to 90 percent of white people approve of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. today, while only about 30 percent of white people approved of him during the civil rights movement (which is about the same percentage of white people who approved of Colin Kaepernick when he first took a knee in protest back in 2016).
Glennon quoted a piece of Dr. King’s famous 1963 essay, “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in which he wrote this:
“I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’.”
Wow…these words hit me like a ton of bricks for a few reasons. First of all, what Dr. King was writing about back in 1963 from that Birmingham jail is what I am seeing and hearing a lot of these days. Some of the people I’ve been arguing with have even used Dr. King as an example essentially saying “he did it the right way,” but then accusing those who are protesting today for doing it the “wrong way.” This makes me crazy…I find it incredibly disrespectful and disingenuous.
But, second of all, the deeper truth I had to grapple with as I read these powerful words is my own moderation, my own racism, and the subtle ways in which I actually do the things that Dr. King is calling out in this essay, which perpetuate racial inequality and white supremacy.
Like the smoke in the air in California right now, we’ve all been breathing in the toxicity of racism here in America our whole lives – it’s in us whether we want to own it or not.
I think a big part of what’s happening right now in our country is that many people are waking up a bit more to this toxicity and seeing the devastating and deadly impact it has had and is still having on black and brown people, and on our entire society.
Those of us who simply get to learn about systemic racism (and not experience it directly) are incredibly privileged. And, we have the opportunity to use this privilege to actually make our country fairer, more just, and more humane.
To do this we’re going to have to continue to grapple with not only how the racism of our country impacts us personally, but how we internalize it and even perpetuate it, both consciously and unconsciously. And, in doing this, we can continue to both learn and unlearn, and we can also actively participate in the changes that are necessary. While this is not easy or comfortable, it is essential.
As we get closer to the election here in the US, I have a feeling that things are going to be increasingly intense and volatile. I feel scared, sad, and angry…and, at the same time, I also feel excited, hopeful, and ready.
We have a lot of work to do – within ourselves and our country. And, as Dr. King also famously said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”