What is empathy?
Empathy is widely researched in science. There is a lot of disagreement between the real definitions and backgrounds of empathy. Hall & Schwartz described in 2018 the different concepts to look at these definitions, categorized by how many dimensions the researchers might add to the definition.
As part of the 4 Pillars, we understand Empathy as a competence rather than a process or a trait. And that means, that we can do something to become better in empathy.
We can break down empathy into two components.
- The affective component, which describes our emotional response to the emotional status of another person. For example, we smile, if we see another person smile. We frown, if we see another person in pain.
- The cognitive component describes our conscious response to the emotional feeling of another person. For example, which pictures we see in front of our eyes, when someone describes a situation to us. This cognitive response is, how we as a person understand the other person’s emotion from their perspective; not only from our own.
The big difference in both empathetic responses is, which perspective we take. In the affective component, we are identifying ourselves with the other emotion. In the cognitive component, we take the other person’s perspective into consideration.
As leaders, we need both. First, we need to be capable to emotionally understand the other’s person emotion. Secondly, to be able to take the other’s emotion into consideration before we decide on something, we should be able to take their perspective to truly understand it.
The following video from Brené Brown describes empathy:
Why should Leaders have empathy?
As we argued in our earlier article, we know, that authentic leadership is important to build a trustful environment. A trustful environment is one of the key elements for the performance of a team. Science shows, that empathy as an interpersonal skill can make it easier to develop a cooperative relationship of mutual trust with a subordinate.
This research results have been supported by additional studies, where empathy increased leadership effectiveness in dynamic global markets. Therefore, the more complex the environment, the more effective empathy could become for your team’s performance.
How do we increase empathy?
Empathy is a complicated construct and hard to grasp. Very often, it is also confused with sympathy (see video above). But based on our research, it seems there are three fundamental components, we can build upon:
- Mindfulness is the quality or state of being conscious or aware of something. Very often, mindfulness is seen as a form of meditation. But it can actually start in much smaller steps, such as being conscious about the taste of the food. What does it taste like? How much salt is in the food? Being mindful in this situation would mean, that you would only think about the taste of the food and nothing else. Having this quality of identifying our sensations in different states of our own emotions, makes us much more aware of our own emotions while we have them.
- Emotional intelligence describes the capacity to be aware of, control, and express one’s emotions. To be able to cognitively respond to other people’s emotions, we need to be able to understand our own emotions. We only take other’s perspectives, when we have felt and understood similar situations ourselves. Emotional Intelligence also describes, how we respond to one’s emotions, which helps us to interact with others judiciously and empathetically.
- Self-Regulation is our ability to … well … regulate ourselves with intervention from someone else. As described in the affective component, we will respond to other emotions also emotionally. When we can identify and understand emotions through Mindfulness and Emotional Intelligence, Self-Regulation will describe, how we act in the interpersonal relationship with others. Are we becoming engulfed by the emotions? For example, do we lash out to others only because the emotions are dominating us? Or can we regulate our own response and work with another person rationally?
Where to start?
In our article about vulnerability, we suggested having an introspective cycle or rhythm (similar to iterations in Agile). During this cycle, you can analyze your own progress towards Empathy and decide our next actions.
During this cycle, increase your emotional intelligence by acknowledging the emotions you might have had during the last cycle. If you are unaware, which emotions you had, Paul Ekman’s Atlas of emotions might be helpful to identify the emotions. Daily Mindfulness exercises are a pointer to identify the emotions.
Then during the weekly cycle, ask yourself:
- What impact did the different emotional states have on your team?
- Given that emotional state, who are the three team members, who are most impacted positively by that state?
- Given that emotional state, who are the three team members, who are most impacted negatively by that state?
- What can you do with your emotions, to keep the impact to the prior mentioned team members positive?
- How would you do that?
- What does each of your team members expect from you regarding their emotions?
- What changes in the dynamics of your team members did you notice?
Also, we do regular trainings on our 4 Pillars, in which we build all 4 pillars continuously and reciprocally. Join us for one of the trainings.