The Case for Empathy, Briefly

It leads to better outcomes at work.


Empathy is the foundation skill for all social competencies that are important at work.

I didn’t just say that, Daniel Goleman did in his 1998 book, Working with Emotional Intelligence.

What is empathy?  According to the Random House Dictionary, empathy is the vicarious participation in or experiencing of the thoughts, feelings, or attitudes of another; the ability to imagine oneself in another’s condition.

So what’s the big deal with this?  

In our shrinking and interdependent world, empathy is proving to be indispensable to success.  We humans are fundamentally social creatures.  Neuroscience shows us more and more how our brains are wired for social participation.

As we connect ourselves to greater and greater numbers of other human beings, whether in person or electronically, our capabilities to understand and appreciate get tested and pushed to new levels.

Empathy moves us to a place where there can be listening, trust, and respect.  My friend and author Rick Maurer says you give up nothing by treating people with respect.

When you work to access the perspective of someone else, when you step to her side and acknowledge the validity of what is there (notice I didn’t say “agree with”), you reduce the tension in the room and help everyone get more of what they want: solutions, agreements, better relationships.

I see empathy as an accelerant of change.  Empathic involvement of all who are affected by a change raises the likelihood that the resisters in the room will feel heard, valued, and trusted.  This reduces the severity of their resistance and raises the odds for success.

Our world is complex.  Our entrained response to this complexity is to simplify it so we can control it.  This reductionism no longer serves us in most situations.  Empathy allows us to stay with complexity’s ambiguity longer so that we can give ourselves a better chance to arrive at more sustainable solutions.

Engaging empathically increases the range of options available to us in changing, volatile, unpredictable environments.

Improving our empathic abilities can bridge the gulf between head and heart, leading to workplaces that are engaging, innovative, and more productive.