What Does Empathy Mean?

by M.T. Wroblewski

It's been shown to resolve arguments 50 percent faster, leading to greater creativity and teamwork in the workplace and needed by people in the “caring professions” such as teaching, health care and management. People who have it report much greater happiness in both their platonic and romantic relationships, and they usually make better parents, too. People who have it also tend to be better adjusted emotionally, more popular, more outgoing and more sensitive. If you think women are better at expressing it than men, you're right, but the fact is that either gender can cultivate it if they want to. “It” is empathy, or the ability to know and understand what another person is experiencing.

Why Empathy Matters

The word “empathy” entered the American lexicon in 1909. But it wasn't until Daniel Goleman's revolutionary book, “Emotional Intelligence,” burst on the scene in 1995 that empathy, the cornerstone of Goleman's thesis, gained widespread legitimacy. Everyone from psychologists and marriage counselors to human resource professionals and radio talk show hosts dissected this skill with vigor.

Goleman did not mince words about the importance of empathy in human relationships, calling it the “fundamental people skill.” Failing to “register another's feelings is a major deficit in emotional intelligence, and a tragic failing in what it means to be human,” he wrote. “All rapport – the root of caring – stems from emotional attunement, from the capacity for empathy.”

Empathy is the emotional cousin of sympathy, but the two skills are very different. Extending sympathy to someone whose loved one has passed on is comparatively rote to extending empathy for the person's loss. Put another way, sympathy might be expressed as, “I care about your pain and suffering.” Empathy raises the stakes considerably to “I feel your pain and suffering.” You can increase your so-called “empathy quotient” by practicing some ingratiating and endearing people skills.

Raise Your EQ

Listen intently. Careful listening is a skill unto itself, and it's the one that most distinguishes an empathetic person from an indifferent one. A careful listener makes a conversation all about the other person; she isn't just biding her time so she can jump in with her response or overtake the conversation. Instead, she seeks to understand, asks questions for clarification and finds meaning in words as well as in nonverbal cues.

Validate but withhold judgment. Marriage counselors encourage sparring partners to rephrase their loved one's feelings for a good reason: The repetition provides reassurance that they have been heard. This doesn't mean you have to agree with the other person's beliefs or opinions. But it does mean that you suspend judgment as you recast their words with your own. Empathy places the focus entirely on the other person and his perspective, not on you and yours.

Reach out to strangers, part 1: It's not always easy for adults to step out of their comfort zone. We enjoy coffee with people we know, eat lunch with people we like and socialize with people with whom we share commonalities. But if you're trying to raise your empathy quotient, it helps to challenge the status quo by striking up a conversation with more than “the usual suspects.” It takes more than curiosity to approach a stranger; it takes courage, too. Striving for even one new encounter a week may lead to some surprising revelations.

Reach out to strangers, part 2: People often become polarized in both their personal and professional lives by associating with people whom they know share their core belief system. The true “champions” of empathy reach out to people whom they know hold views that differ from their own – even presumed enemies. The Start Empathy initiative was founded on the belief that “the decision of one person can have ripple effects through communities and cultures. Empathy gives us the will and the tools to be effective changemakers.” In other words, empathy can be the key to bringing even warring factions together in a peaceful manner. “Empathy motivates us to build something better together and helps us do so with imagination and respect ‒ guided by a deep understanding for the people and the world around us.”

About the Author

With education, health care and small business marketing as her core interests, M.T. Wroblewski has penned pieces for Woman's Day, Family Circle, Ladies Home Journal and many newspapers and magazines. She holds a master's degree in journalism from Northern Illinois University.