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Understanding Empathy: A guide to leveraging empathy for the good of self and others

Summary. Empathy is a hotly discussed topic both in society and business, yet many are unaware of what empathy really is, where does it originate from, how much empathy do we have, and can empathy be learnt or cultivated. What does it mean to be empathetic in the workplace, how does it all affect the individual and the group, how does compassion relate to empathy, and what does recent research tell us about it. In this article, we cover the answers to all these questions. We also provide research-backed solutions and strategies on how to increase your empathy capital, bank on it, sustain it, make it positively impactive for the community and workplace, and leverage it for self-progression without compromising time, energy, or running into burnouts or bias decision making.

The content of all our articles is protected by the Terms & Conditions policy. For license of content, please reach out to us directly, our information are on the contact us page.

In recent years, there has been many debates on the importance of empathy in both the workplace and social structures, as well as its impact on the individual. In particular, empathy as a critical element of leadership, and has been discussed by many writers in prime publications, such as the Harvard Business Review and Forbes.

In this article, we look at the meaning of empathy and how to leverage it for personal growth while managing it to prevent any suffering that can lead to burnout.


What is empathy?

Empathy is in simple terms the ability to understand and share another person’s feelings. It has an element of being aware of the feeling in the first place, usually referred to as ‘cognitive empathy’, and then unconsciously reacting on this recognition by reproducing the feeling. This is referred to in literature as ‘affective empathy’, which in simpler terms ‘putting yourself in another’s shoes. The third step of empathy is then to act upon this feeling that one now possesses by attempting to help make the situation better for example if the feeling is suffering or pain, the empathetic person would think on how can make this person feel better, what can I do.

This action taking step, is what is refer to as compassion, and is often considered separate from empathy. According to the definitions from Psychology Today, “Compassion is an empathic understanding of a person’s feelings, accompanied by altruism, or a desire to act on that person’s behalf.” Hougaard, Carter and Afton, authors of the “Compassionate Leadership: How to Do Hard Things in a Human Way”, summaries this concept as Empathy + Action = Compassion.



Where does empathy originate from?

The answer is simple, we are born with it. It is embedded of ones’ personality. There is a reason why there are people born with strong empathy. Empathy is critical to both having a healthy society where people feel for each other as well survival of the weak. Understanding of another’s perspective can create many positive feelings such as affection, love, respect, support, mercy, concern for others’ wellbeing, understanding without judgement, and reluctancy to hurt others. The receivers of empathy also experience a range of positive feelings such as gratitude, support, loyalty, appreciation, and love, as people do not forget when someone stands by them.


These dynamics lead to closely connected communities and hence healthier societies. Empathy is also critical to the survival of humanity, because with it, the strong can help the venerable. Empathetic people who show compassion act as advocates in society. An empathetic person is more likely to believe in a cause of another and pursue it themselves to improve the situation.


Despite the fact that we are born with empathy, we do not all have the same level of it. Though there are no concrete measures, some people show less cognitive empathy, some lack on affective empathy, and some can be empathetic, but do not take on action, making them less compassionate.


For example, it has long been debated that people with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) lack on empathy, a similar belief is common for psychopaths. This could not be further from the truth. Contrary to the common thought, it is not a lack of empathy that we observe with autistic people or psychopaths, but rather, a deficit or delay in one of the types of empathy.


In his research on empathising–systemising theory, English clinical psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen argues that psychopathy is associated with intact cognitive empathy but reduced affective empathy while ASD is associated with both reduced cognitive and affective empathy. This means, a person with autism may have difficulties with cognitive empathy, yet when they are told what another person is experiencing, their affective empathy kicks in, they may not be able to read or identify what you are feeling but they certainly care once they do (zero positive empathy). Baron-Cohen also states that autistic people are the polar opposite of psychopaths, whose cognitive empathy is intact, but their affective empathy reduced or non-existent – they are perfectly able to read what you are feeling, but simply do not care (zero negative empathy).


What happens to those born with empathy deficit?

Well, if you are lacking on any type of empathy, do not worry, you can teach yourself. Empathy Is a skill after all. Through practice and self-development, nothing is impossible. Empathy falls under emotional intelligence, you can learn to increase this intelligence by teaching yourself how to identify the emotion of another person, as well as how to react to it, and how to manage said emotion. You can even practice transferring their feeling to yourself, though imagining how would you feel if you were going through the same thing. This experience sharing imagination exercise, can help you connect to them on deeper level, which is the essence of empathy.


Understand your empathy

If you are curious on how empathetic you are in the first place, then you can take a specialised quiz such as the one from the Greater Good website from Berkley University, which we have included for you in this link.  You can also take a personality quiz that covers different aspects including empathy. Yours truly has taken the 16 personalities few years ago, and found out I am of an Advocate type, one of the high empathetic personality types that love to advocate for a cause. Great advocate leaders who have directed their empathy to help people of great cause are: Martin Luther-King, Mother Teresa, and Nelson Mandela.

Other deeper analysis can be taken through more research oriented tests as the Empathy quotient (EQ), a psychological self-report measure of empathy developed by Simon Baron-Cohen and Sally Wheelwright at the Autism Research Centre at the University of Cambridge.


Starting early

The best way to spread empathy through society and grow a relatable generation of humans, is to start with children. Children can be egocentric, but they can also show empathy, for example when they see someone get hurt in the playground, they rush to ask how they are and give them a hug to make them feel better, an early show of compassion.

If your child does not understand or show empathy, this is ok, you can teach them. In fact many parents and schools around the world, and in diverse cultures, encourage kids to practice kindness and caring toward themselves and others, to receive compassion and be compassed towards others. If you have a child with autism, then using social stories can help teaching them the concept of empathy, how to identify it, and how to practice it.

Of course, there is no better way to teaching children than leading by example.  Some practices that became part of the modern parent habit can be harmful to the child’s emotional intelligence growth and hence empathy. For example, Robin Nabi, a UC Santa Barbara professor of communication researched what happens then using the phone around your children, and reported that the more often parents are on their smartphones in front of their kids, the lower the children’s emotional intelligence.


At the workplace

In an article by the Harvard Business Review, under the title ‘Making Empathy Central to Your Company Culture’, author Jamil Zaki reports that around 20% of U.S. companies now offer empathy training to their managers and leaders. This is because research shows that empathic workplaces tend to enjoy stronger collaboration, less stress, and greater morale. In this context, the best skills for successful leadership included listening and responding to employees, an integral part of being empathetic. Similarly, another article published by the Harvard Business Review showed that leading with compassion has research-backed benefits. The article goes on to suggest strategies on how managers can improve their compassion skills, such as starting small, being thankful, and purposeful and asking the right questions, finding common ground with the employees, and celebrating compassion in the organization. Stanford University offers comprehensive trainings on Applied Compassion to help people integrate compassionate action into their occupations, professions, communities and institutions, as well as into their personal development.

During the COVID pandemic, this became even more evident as the whole world went through emotional roller coaster and new levels of uncertainty and stress. The workplace was not immune.  Tracy Brower, PhD, sociologist and the author of The Secrets to Happiness at Work wrote in article during the pandemic in Forbes under the title ‘Empathy Is The Most Important Leadership Skill According To Research’ stating that that Empathy has always been a critical skill for leaders, but it was taking on a new level of meaning and priority. She mentions that leadership requires a fine mix of all kinds of skills to create the conditions for engagement, happiness and performance, and empathy tops the list of what leaders must get right. The study that made the base of the article explains that experiencing empathy from leaders increased employee’s innovation, engagement, retention, inclusivity, and work-life quality.


Is there a negative side to Empathy?

If you are thinking that it all sounds so good, a bit too good to be true, then you are right. Though it is a blessing to be empathetic, there is a dark side to being good and feeling for others.


The candle effect / Burn-out

Just like a candle that burns while lighting up the paths of others, empathy can simply take a tall on you and leave you all burnt-out. Carrying others’ emotions and absorbing stress is not a simple task particularly if you are in an environment where there is lot of negative emotions. For example, if your occupation exposes you to people’s suffering such as the medical professions, this means over 8 hours daily of listening to people and feeling their pain. This constant inference of emotional experience can be crippling over time and can have damaging long-term consequences to wellbeing, mental health, and progression.

Compassion can also add to the feeling of being responsible of doing something about the situation to make the other person’s feel better, and avoid feeling selfish. This causes compassion fatigue, that can be chronical. “I feel like I’m never enough,” one Fortune 100 executive recently said, “even in my empathy for my people. Anything going wrong with them means I’ve failed.”


empathy can be emotionally and physically exhausting for managers”

Jamil Zaki


This does not mean that an empathetic person should not carry an emotionally loaded career or not trust people, but they certainly need to comprehend what this means to them and how to protect themselves when needed.  When you let yourself burn out, you deny everyone else the best version of yourself. This means no one will eventually benefit from your empathy’s potential. In the context of general wisdom: regardless of your industry you are in, managing others well begins with managing yourself, and it all starts with managing your empathy to achieve a sustainable state.

Sustaining empathy is critical to the empathetic individual and their environment. In business, this means their working place. In his research on how to sustain empathy in difficult times, psychologist Jamil Zaki provides three strategies that can help manage the empathy in a healthy way to maintain what he refers to as ‘sustainable empathy’. His recommendations include:

  1. Acknowledging the distress that comes from caring about the pain of others.
  2. Treating yourself with the same grace you offer others.
  3. Not being afraid to ask for help.


Be aware of deception and misjudgement

Can emotions and caring blind our decisions? Can a decision out of empathy and good intention turn to be the wrong one? The answer is yes, if the feeling that was mirrored in the empathy process was not true in the first place. Awareness of what is genuine emotion and what might be fake is a skill that can be tricky to learn. Deceivers can be crafty, and can manipulate an empathetic decision maker to achieve a personal agenda. Empathy can attract wanna-be victims, constant complainers, and empathy junkies who love others to listen to them constantly and thrive under pity. Some people can take the empathetic person for granted and pray on their goodwill to find excuses for certain actions that would have otherwise been unacceptable.

As a good listener, an empathetic leader needs to filter out the noise from genuine feelings, and ensure they are not finding excuses for people. That they are taking the right decision for everyone. Even if the transferred feeling is genuine, it can be overwhelming and suck the empathetic person into a bias when it comes to decision making. Paul Polman, former CEO of Unilever stated that: “If I led with empathy, I would never be able to make a single decision. Why? Because with empathy, I mirror the emotions of others, which makes it impossible to consider the greater good.”

Taking a decision for the wellbeing of everyone can be achieved by learning to increase awareness, getting a clear perspective on the situation, tuning in your caring, and leading with compassion. In their article, Hoogaard, Carter, and Afton suggest the below strategies to achieve a healthy leadership with compassion:

  1. Taking a step back from the problem in order to solve it.
  2. Listening to what the other person wants, by asking them directly what they want and what they expect from you. This will better inform you on how you can help
  3. Ensuring the other person that they have been heard, after all they came to you to feel heard and seen.
  4. Coaching the other person so they can derive their own solution
  5. Practicing self-care to maintain an empathy and compassion equilibrium.


“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle.”



Final thoughts

Be good to yourself. Protecting your mental health is critical for the empathetic person, not just for your wellness, but to be able to carry on the kindness that comes with empathy. To look after yourself, you need to cultivate your empathy, learn how to recognise when you are about to stagnate, hold, and go to your happy place, a safe place from the negative emotions you just carried from someone else. How much is enough is up to you and your mental capacity.

How to can decompress will also relate to your personality type. For example, if you are an introvert, listening to people and feeling for them can be a draining of your energy, so make sure you are energizing by having enough time for yourself and away from people. If you are an extrovert, then ensure you are energising by being with positive happy people, so you transmit positive feelings through empathy as opposed to only absorbing negative ones. Remember, empathy and compassion are skills. This means anyone and everyone can.

Disclaimer: The content of all our articles is protected by the Terms & Conditions policy. For license of content, please reach out to us directly, our information are on the contact us page.

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