Cultivating Empathy

Putting yourself in someone elses shoes is an essential part of building and maintaining interpersonal relationships. Empathy has received a lot of press recently, from the psychology researcher Paul Bloom, who argues that empathy is not nearly as important as compassion and behaving morally, to the Harvard Business Review, which has published a top 20 list of the most empathetic companies.

Why is the concept of empathy so important? According to the Harvard Business Review, companies that embrace empathy have significantly more earnings and operate more ethically. Teams of employees who display higher empathy have better performance. For example, when a boss is hostile or highly critical of an employee, the employee may feel sad, scared, or ashamed. This could affect the employee for hours or even days, thereby impacting the employees productivity in the short-term and their work relationship in the long-term. In the business context, empathy seems to mean a combination of trying to understand how your employees and your clients feel. The result is more of a focus on employee comfortphysical and psychologicaland client satisfaction.

Psychology researchers have demonstrated the importance of empathy and feeling understood by others. The fundamental basis of relationships is the attachment we feel to our loved ones. As children, we feel safe when we are deeply understood by our parent or other primary caregivers.

As we grow, we expand our connections to friends and other family. As adults, we try to re-establish the feeling of being understood through our romantic relationships. We feel loved and accepted when our friends and family understand how we feel, how we experience life, and why we behave the way we do.

Receiving love and acceptance, despite our flaws, is vital for feeling grounded and confident in our sense of ourselves. In the absence of a proper amount of empathy, at home or at work, we risk losing a solid sense of ourselves and feel less safe.

Given the importance of empathy in the workplace and at home, how does one cultivate empathy? Here are some suggestions for increasing the amount of empathy in your life.

Follow the golden rule. Treat others as you would like to be treated. People all like to be treated fairly, humanely, and with dignity.

Be civil. Treat others with respect, kindness, and compassion. Do not yell, dismiss, intimidate, or ignore.

Listen. It is essential to truly listen to someone else speak and to work hard to understand what she or he is saying. Notice when your mind wanders, catch yourself, and refocus on listening.

Make the effort to feel and think as others do. It takes practice and becomes easier with time.

Help others cultivate empathy by explaining how you feel and think. Talk about how you feel and think in the context of work or personal interactions. Model this for others. When a co-worker or friend does not understand your position, try to frame it from a perspective that he or she can see or use examples from his or her life.

Remember, the key to empathy is putting your relationship with a friend, co-worker, or family member before being right or wrong. Reserve judgements for later, and use that energy to really engage with the person youre talking to. The benefits to your relationships and psychological health will be well worth the effort.

Elizabeth H. Winston, PhD, is a Madison psychologist who provides psychotherapy, psychological assessment, and consultation to businesses and organizations. Find her at elizabethwinston.com and consultingcollaborative.org .