Empathy – Why It’s Important

Empathy – what does this word evoke in you?

I found that this is not an easy word for me to truly understand. The easier word to feel for is sympathy, which is to express sorrow or feel sorry for someone who has had a misfortune of a negative or undesired experience. For example, if a friend happened to have caught the dengue fever and had to be hospitalised, I can feel sympathy for my friend and express my sympathy for him/her. But to truly empathize with him? To really put myself in his shoes and feel the pain, the frustrations, the bodily fever and nausea and all the sensations he is going through is not easy. Not possible unless I am struck with dengue myself.  I think it’s not possible to have 100% empathy unless we have had the experience ourselves.

I had a bad ankle sprain recently when I jumped and landed on the side of my foot during a game of badminton. It was really painful and the foot swelled up immediatedly. I applied ice the same day and it swelled to an even bigger foot the next day! I couldn’t use my left foot and had difficulty moving about. Everything I did that required movement reminded me of the sprain – this included bathing (I couldn’t stand on 2 feet and had to rely on support of the wall), making coffee (I have to wash the cup and move around to get coffee and boil water) and everything that required use of the foot. The positive outcome of the experience (the physical sensations and mental frustration) was that it allowed me to truly empathize with the  disabled amongst us (especially those who has no legs, those who has 1 leg, those with movement disability, and the aged who has difficulty walking). This episode triggered the question about empathy, whether we can truly empathize with someone else and how we can better empathize with someone else?

How can we better emphatize with someone else?

I can think of the following ways:

First, listen. Just listen. Really listen. Don’t listen while thinking at the back of your head about how to respond or something else in your mind. Don’t listen while listening to the other voices in your head. Just pay 100% attention to the other person and what is said. Listen to the tone of voice, the volume in the voice and the emphasis or lack of it in the words uttered. Listen to the emotion and energy of what is shared. Be 100% present in the moment. If we really listen, we can pick up important cues about the experience as the person describes it – this helps us better emphatize. When we really listen, the other person would feel really listened to and this is probably just what the other person needs – someone to just listen to them  (and not offer solutions, etc.).

If you don’t have the opportunity to interact with the person, keep an open mind and don’t assume you know what the other person is going through, his/her intention or perspective. Be open and if there is an opportunity, go talk to him/her.

Ask (if it was not shared and appropriate to do so) what the experience was like for him/her. What was really difficult or painful ? How does she/he feel?  How has the experience changed him/her? This helps us imagine more vividly what the experience feels like.

Acknowledge what the other person is going through and offer encouragement and support if appropriate.  Acknowledging what someone else is going through sends the message that you feel for them.

Is empathy important? I believe so. Research done (published in Harvard Business Review) where business leaders were asked what attributes are critical in today’s digital, global economy showed that empathy was one of the top 5, and also quoted as the most important. The ability to empathize allows a person to really understand the customer and people from different cultures. Empathy allows a manager to understand and connect better with his staff. This contributes to better insights about customers and stronger engagement with employees.

Design thinking, a methodology popularised by IDEO is used widely today not just by designers but businesses, government agencies and non-profit organizations to build better products and services. Design thinking puts Empathy as the first important step in order to come up with a solution that truly meets the needs of the customer. Empathy is about immersion in the customer’s world, walking in the customers’ shoes, experiencing what the customer goes through in order to truly understand the issues, difficulties and challenges faced before coming up with the problem statement.  Empathy is the first important step to develop better products and services.

I think all of us have empathy within us. We just need to remember to tap into it and have the courage to show it.




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