The Most Important Empathy Skills (With Examples)

By Chris Kolmar - Mar. 18, 2021

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Almost every job requires some level of social interaction. When you work with supervisors, fellow employees, and customers, you are dealing with people, each with their individuality and history. We all like to think we know this already, but it can easily be taken for granted.

Your profession, with all its goals and stresses, can distract you from the common humanity of your coworkers and clients. It is normal to get lost in your mind and forget that others do not see the world as you do. This can lead to lost opportunities and destructive conflict, but if you improve you can create a more meaningful impact in the workplace.

To do so you need empathy. Luckily, you already have this trait, though you may need to develop and refine it. This is true for even the most empathetic professionals.

It is a skill that can always be reevaluated and improved. The most successful professionals, particularly those in leadership positions, will use their empathy to lift themselves and those around them to success.

What Is Empathy?

Empathy is the ability to perceive and understand the emotions of another person. It is an essential psychological trait needed to create social bonds between individuals. Without empathy, people would not be able to react to one another in constructive ways. Another key component is the shared emotional reaction that results in empathy.

When you are being empathetic, you understand what the other person is going through because you can feel similar emotions. This is either from instinct or else your memory and imagination put you in their position. In any case, you develop an emotional connection due to your empathetic awareness.

Empathy is a key factor in emotional intelligence which makes it an important skill in the workplace. Empathetic employees and employers result in better job performance because it builds respect and inclusiveness among people. By developing your empathy skills you improve your professional relationships which lead to better opportunities for success.

The Differences Between Empathy and Sympathy

Many people confuse empathy with sympathy, but sympathy is only the acknowledgment of another person’s feelings. Though this is important, empathy goes one step beyond creating a personal understanding of those feelings. With sympathy, you stay on the outside and feel for that person. With empathy, you look inwards to relate and feel with the other’s experience.

Consider how a doctor or a politician may deliver a sympathetic message before they begin to speak about a serious topic. The sympathy allows the audience to be acknowledged. Yet, imagine a manager who sees an employee overwhelmed with grief. An empathetic manager will act on their empathy and let their feelings inform their decision to help their employee.

Types of Empathy

Empathy can be broken down into three categories. Each type is important, however, they vary in the depth in which one feels for another and how to react to those emotions.

  • Cognitive. Cognitive, or rational, empathy is when you use your logic and reasoning to place yourself into the perspective of another. This may come from building off previous memories of similar experiences or else remembering what you have been taught about emotional awareness. However, you may remain emotionally neutral yourself.

  • Emotional. Emotional, or affective, empathy comes from experiencing an emotional reaction to the other person. You feel what they feel. This can be a natural reaction or from practice. Sometimes cognitive empathy can lead to emotional empathy when your thoughts start to affect your emotions.

  • Compassionate. Compassionate, or active, empathy combines the cognitive and emotional empathetic qualities and results in taking action to help the other person. Through understanding and feeling for the other, compassionate empathy looks for ways to have a positive impact.

Each type of empathy has its appropriate uses. Cognitive empathy is important for situations where you need to stay emotionally separate and make decisions that are not affected by the emotions of another person. Emotional empathy is very important to build authentic relationships because it creates a deeper connection.

Compassionate empathy is very good for situations where your own emotions have a beneficial impact on the action you take to help another. Empathy can be emotionally exhausting and it is important to be mindful of the effects it may have on you. When possible, take time to self-reflect on important moments of empathy to see how you can improve.

Skills to Improve Empathy

Empathy does not exist on its own — it takes a combination of other skills to develop. To improve your empathy, you will also need to refine and incorporate other experiences.

  • Active listening. Empathy usually results from a conversation you have with another person. When they are speaking you want to make sure you are fully listening. Active listening means you focus on what is being said and avoid interrupting. A good active listener will repeat or summarize what they heard to solidify their understanding.

  • Self-awareness. Self-awareness is the ability to understand how you and others perceive yourself. Someone with a high level of self-awareness will have an accurate assessment of their strengths and weaknesses.

    This includes how thoughts and emotions affect them. Your self-awareness is necessary to navigate the emotional state of another.

  • Understand body language. Body language reveals a lot about what a person is feeling. Though they may say one thing, their movements could tell another.

    Particularly with facial recognition, empathy uses the body language of another person to guess what they are feeling. By looking at someone, their presentation might tell you all you need to know.

  • Curiosity. A desire to understand a person is more effective when there is a genuine desire to learn more about them. Curiosity helps foster this connection. Use your curiosity to learn about the other person. Also, let curiosity influence your thoughts and emotions as you try to see and feel from another’s perspective.

  • Nonviolent communication. Nonviolent communication uses strategies to reach an understanding without the use of aggression. Your ability to connect with another person depends on your ability to move away from aggressive or defensive tendencies. Therefore, with nonviolent communication, you can use your empathy.

  • Receiving feedback. There are situations where when you receive feedback you may need to use your empathy. If someone tells you that your actions made them feel a certain way, it can be helpful to be empathetic to their feedback. This in turn can help you respond in a manner that is constructive rather than divisive.

  • Reading. Both fiction and nonfiction literature provide large access to empathy-building resources. Fictional books place you in the minds of other characters which inadvertently builds your empathic responsiveness. Nonfiction books, meanwhile, can educate you on topics related to empathy to better your understanding of the skill.

  • Leave your comfort zone. Sometimes you need to be vulnerable and learn to keep an open mind. The best way to do this is to leave your comfort zone and challenge yourself. Place yourself in new environments that make you reconsider past assumptions and teach you about other ways of living.

  • Understand basic psychology. The human brain is the most complex organ in the body. Learn a basic understanding of how the mind works to empower yourself in situations that call for empathy. You will have more context to the thoughts and emotions you experience, which can lead to better decisions.

Reasons for Empathy in Professional Development

Empathy is an important skill regardless of your occupation. Your ability to deal with people will impact your success because customers, employees, supervisors, and investors will all have emotional reactions from time to time. Your ability to understand and communicate through those emotions will strengthen your ability to pursue your goals. So consider how empathy:

  • Leads to effective communication. When others feel understood they are more willing to understand. Empathy helps break down barriers and builds a connection between individuals. In many stressful professional situations, this connection can be the deciding factor between success and failure.

  • Better teamwork and better results. Empathy, especially cognitive empathy, acts on the needs and concerns of others to create a positive outcome. Such an emotional perception can help others feel confident. This confidence in turn motivates them to reach their full potential.

  • Necessary leadership skills to create a productive environment. The best leaders get the best out of their team. When a manager acts with empathy, employees feel valued which leads to productive engagement. Employees are more likely to follow the needs of a company when they feel their own emotional needs are met.

  • Brings agility to a dynamic globalized economy. In today’s economy, many businesses have diverse employees and clientele. Empathy acts as the first step to successful cross cultural communication because it builds a connection on human elements. If you embrace empathy you set yourself up for positive cultural interactions.

Empathy is a powerful communication tool, one that needs to be learned if you want to have successful business interactions. Emotional situations, such as conflict, are bound to arise in any professional setting. When emotions begin to take the lead in conversations, it will be to your benefit to focus on the problems at hand without reacting with unchecked emotions.

Final Thoughts

It may seem like an obvious skill or it may seem like a useless feel-good platitude, but empathy truly has an important impact on professional success. Employees work harder with bosses who value and understand their emotional state. Fellow employees work better with those who connect on an emotional level. Customers respond to emotional understanding.

In all cases, your use of empathy will dictate how you react to the emotional states of others. Even if you feel you already have a grasp of empathy, know that it can always be improved. Do not take for granted the human need for emotional bonding. Work out your empathy skills every day and you will find more positive opportunities in your professional life.

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Chris Kolmar

Chris Kolmar is a co-founder of Zippia and the editor-in-chief of the Zippia career advice blog. He has hired over 50 people in his career, been hired five times, and wants to help you land your next job. His research has been featured on the New York Times, Thrillist, VOX, The Atlantic, and a host of local news. More recently, he's been quoted on USA Today, BusinessInsider, and CNBC.

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