Empathy is vital to the success of both your professional and personal life. Unfortunately, too often, the role of empathy is misunderstood. We confuse it with sympathy, but the two are not the same.

Imagine for a moment that you lost your job, and you’ve found yourself in an unexpected job search. Or imagine you suddenly lose a close friend or loved one.

In either case, the pain you feel from your loss will be profound and upsetting. Do you want friends, family members, and others to be sympathetic—or empathetic?

When I’m hurting, I always want comfort and help from empathetic people. But I must tell you, sympathetic people are easier to find.

The definition of “sympathy” is “feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune.” Anyone can feel sympathy. I feel sympathy all the time for those impacted by something that isn’t affecting me when I learn about:

  • A flood or earthquake that destroys a community
  • A mass shooting
  • Someone killed by a drunk driver

I feel sorry and have compassion for the survivors because I know they are hurting. But sympathy doesn’t take much time or investment from me.

Empathy is more challenging. It’s getting in there and doing the hard work of understanding and feeling what someone else is experiencing from that person’s perspective. It doesn’t require you to live what the other person is living, but it does require you to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.

It takes time to be empathetic.

If you’re hurting, you want someone who understands what you’re going through. It may be because they’ve experienced it, too. But that isn’t always the case. They may have merely listened in a way that lets you know they care enough to discover what you’re going through—even when they haven’t faced the same issue.

Are you someone who gives of yourself to others? Are you willing to take the time to be empathetic?

At work, people want empathetic team members. We want to work with people who care for each other. We want co-workers who will make an effort to understand our struggles.

Additionally, people want to work in an organization with leaders that care about them. They’re looking for managers who are empathetic to employee issues.

If you want to be an empathetic leader at any level, it will take time. And, too often, leaders don’t want to make the investment! They want quick answers so they can move on to the next issue.

But if you are ready to invest time in your people—willing to give yourself to listen and understand—you can be an empathetic leader.

And empathy will set you apart.

For example, if you’re responsible for communicating change, resist the temptation to merely give the reasons for the change in a factual manner. Too often leaders jump in without seeking to understand those the change will affect.

This kind of communication will only hinder your success, as well as that of the organization.

Instead, remember this: Though the employees will care about what you say, they’ll care more about how you say it. Communicate in a way that makes them feel like you understand and care about them. Get to know their perspective and how the change will impact them.

When you communicate with empathy, you’ll get more buy-in from your team, and they’ll accept the change more quickly.

We need more empathy in this world.

Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Romans 12:15 (ESV)

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