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.