In over 20 years of working with leaders and teams, I can confirm that empathy is the most misunderstood and, therefore, unused or avoided, skill. By demystifying empathy, you and your team can make your conversations more collaborative and engaging.

When leaders and teams are asked, “What is empathy?”, the most common answers are, “Saying I’m sorry,” “Putting yourself in the other person’s shoes” and, “Sharing the same experience.”

These answers are good, but they could be better:

  • “Sorry” is overused and is not always genuine.
  • The other person’s emotions is how they feel; you don’t have to be in their shoes.
  • It’s not about you; it’s about them. They are sharing their feelings and thoughts, not asking about

So, what is empathy?

If paraphrasing is acknowledging and summarizing the facts we hear, then empathy is acknowledging and summarizing the emotions we hear and see. Empathy:

  • Is not judging the other person’s emotions.
  • Doesn’t mean you have to agree with the other person.
  • Doesn’t necessarily mean the feelings are mutual.

Empathy in Action

Jess is a well-liked and senior salesperson with ABC Company, but lately, she feels frustrated — no, more like annoyed — that ABC continues to stress the importance of a service mindset but only rewards and mentions top sellers. Jess believes this approach is affecting the culture and hurting the brand; sales feels like a competition rather than a team effort.

Jess decides it’s time to go and speak to Chris, one of the managers. She is anxious and hopes this conversation will not become confrontational, but she’s decided that enough is enough.

Take 1:

Jess: “Hi Chris. I want to know why we keep stressing, ‘Service is down, according the customer surveys,’ and then all I see is rewarding top sellers who don’t care about the customer — just their numbers.”

Manager Chris: “Uh-huh, right, I understand but I think we have to look at that as a win for the business — they are bringing in great numbers.”

Jess: “No, no. They are always in a rush, with no real care or concern for the customer, and then it’s on to the next customer. There is no service.”

Chris: “Yeah, I get it, but here’s the thing about we’re trying to do and what sales means…”

Jess: “You’re not getting it!”

Chris: “No, no, I hear you…”

And this goes on.

With phrases like “I understand” and “I get it,” it may sound like Chris is being empathetic. However, nothing really changed. Jess is more frustrated and now feels dismissed. Chris is not defining what he “understands.”

If Chris were more aware of empathy, he could have turned this conversation into a more collaborative one. Let’s take a look at another version of the conversation, where Chris uses empathy.

Take 2:

Jess shares the same dilemma.

Chris: Jess, I understand how important the culture here is to you. As you said, it’s frustrating to see some of your colleagues being recognized for only their sales and not for service. And the stress of coming to work feeling like you’re competing with them…”

Jess: “Thanks, Chris. I know this isn’t easy, and I don’t expect changes to happen overnight…”

Right from the start, Jess instinctively reciprocates Chris’ empathy. They may not be able to solve the problem immediately, but Jess leaves Chris’ office feeling acknowledged and understood.

If you or your training participants are like me, you may feel uncomfortable saying, “I see you’re frustrated.” Instead, try commenting on the situation rather than the person: “It sounds like this was frustrating!”

When you move from misunderstanding and, therefore, underusing empathy to understanding and practicing it, you can start to collaborate. Empathy becomes a key soft skill and a game-changer for leaders and their teams.