The idea that empathy is the hub holding everything else together is the root of my thinking about living, and about working at the intersection of technology and humanity. Empathy is what lets us find our common language, what gives us the power to collaborate and become stronger individuals and make stronger work. It allows us to realize that our struggles are the same, but using different words in different fields. I started to get at this in the happiness post, when I mentioned that the affective filter (an ESL teaching concept) applies to really any field or learning situation, and in the post about being a generalist, in the context of correlating empathy level to wider exposure to different kinds of people and processes.
Let’s start with some Empathy 101, and then we’ll get down to its impact at work. This magnificent clip, illustrated by Katy Davis and narrated by Brene Brown, explains the difference between empathy and sympathy.
Here’s a useful look at differentiating sympathy, empathy, and compassion:
Sympathy – feeling sorry for another’s hurt
Empathy – walking in another’s shoes
Compassion – love in action
Empathy toward self
I am what I’d call a recovering perfectionist, which means that my own self-criticism, when I’ve really let it roar, has been brutal. Empathy toward others has never been a challenge for me, but learning to be gentle and kind toward myself has been a worthy struggle. (Present Perfect by Pavel Somov is an incredible resource for learning to break free of perfectionism.) Another really valuable resource is the lovely self-paced online Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course. It is the source of this lovely essay by Shauna Shapiro, about mindfulness, compassion, and self-compassion. In it, she describes being on a meditation retreat, and looking around at everyone else who seems to be “getting it” while her mind wanders and she struggles and berates herself for not being peaceful and focused and meditative. She eventually broaches this frustration with a monk:
He looked at me with compassion and a humorous twinkle in his eye. “Oh dear, you’re not practicing mindfulness,” he told me. “You are practicing impatience, judgment, frustration, and striving.” Then he said five words that profoundly affected my life: “What you practice becomes stronger.” This wisdom has now been well documented by the science of neuroplasticity, which shows that our repeated experiences shape our brains.
Practicing kindness and understanding with ourselves (and our coworkers, and our bosses, and our families) makes us so much more capable of being kind and understanding. Practice makes practice.
Empathy toward the ones you love
There’s so much to say on this topic, but what I’m going to do instead is offer a few very sweet links:
1. Kind-Hearted Reality Shows I Would Like To See
2. Everything’s Awful and I’m Not OK. (This includes a downloadable self-care reference. Useful in times of personal struggle, incredibly useful when your loved ones are struggling.)
Empathy at work
It’s important to have empathy for our coworkers, and to build an empathetic work environment. This Forbes article is a quick introduction to the importance of empathy in workplace culture (decreased burnout and stress, increased employee retention and employee health). This article about a research study at Wharton University goes on to look at the net positive impact of a compassionate workplace on customer satisfaction as well as teamwork and morale. Researchers found that workplaces with higher levels of what they call “companionate love” had better teamwork, more engaged employees, and less burnout and absenteeism.
Empathy with customers
Empathy and compassion are also important in customer-facing work, beyond the obvious customer service role. Do you understand your product? Do you understand who it’s for? Are you making the right product for the right audience? The Asana blog post I linked to in the post about management captures another level of this: “For companies making customer-facing products, it’s important to have a team that represents the people you serve.”
This Brene Brown quote, from The Power of Vulnerability, really solidifies for me that empathy is essential in all areas of life and work:
“One of the ways we let go of powerlessness is to have greater perspective.”