Displaying Your Singular Empathy

By Marshall Goldsmith

One of the signs of our moral progress is the realization that other human beings are fully as human as ourselves. How often we forget this: Other people are going through the same things we are. Empathy is part of this realization: We feel what others feel. 

Empathy is a deeply personal quality that shapes our ability to make a positive impact.

Empathy is the act of experiencing what other people are feeling or thinking. A German philosopher created the term in 1873— from the word Einfühlung, for “feeling into”—and that’s how we think of it nowadays: We feel our way into other people’s emotions and situations. 

One of the most important qualities of living an earned life is building positive relationships. That’s why in the Life Plan Review we include the question, “Did I do my best to maintain relationships?” We can all admit that empathy is one of the most important variables in building relationships. Like most things that matter, it is a discipline that must be learned. Credibility helps us influence others, while empathy helps us build positive relationships. Both  serve the same purpose—making a positive difference. 

We tend to think of empathy as a good thing. What’s wrong with being alert to the suffering of others and showing concern? But empathy is not only about feeling another person’s pain. It’s more complicated than that. Empathy is a highly adaptable human response, changing with each situation. Sometimes we feel it in our head. Sometimes we express it directly from the heart. Sometimes it can overwhelm us physically, rendering us powerless. 

Sometimes we express empathy through our impulse to do something. Our empathy shifts shapes as the situation shifts. 

I find one particular aspect of empathy useful for a coach. That is the empathy of understand- ing, whereby we understand why and how other people think and feel the way they do. 

I’ve heard it called cognitive empathy, suggesting that we are capable of occupying the same head space as another person. We understand the other person’s motivations. We can predict how they’ll react to a decision. Cognitive empathy is why married couples and longtime partners can finish each other’s sentences. It’s the secret skill that great salespeople rely on to meet their customers’ needs, and why a great salesperson is completely right to say, “I know my customers.” 

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In other areas, cognitive empathy is the keen understanding that effective advertisers employ to create messaging that makes us want to buy their products, usually in ways we’re not aware of (they usually arrive at this through market research and product testing). 

This type of manipulation, taken too far, calls up the dark side of the empathy of understanding. It’s how sinister political actors, understanding the biases and grievances of the citizenry, can sway people to create socio-political turmoil and revolution. It’s also a reminder that we humans have been underestimating empathy’s power, in all its forms, for centuries. 

We also possess an empathy of feeling, that is, experiencing the emotional state of the other person. 

This is the empathy we display when we replicate within ourselves the feeling of another person, usually to communicate to that person some variation of either “I feel your pain” or “I am happy for you.” It is a powerful force within us. Brain studies of people’s reactions to emotional events have shown that rabid sports fans in the United States can experience as intense a joy at seeing their football team score a touchdown as the joy felt by the player who actually scored the touchdown. It’s why we cry or laugh while watching movie characters whom we know are only being acted. When the character on screen is excited or scared, we are excited or scared. It’s why we are comforted by a medical doctor’s so-called bedside manner; through the doctor’s replication of what we’re feeling, we learn that we are not alone in our fear or suffering. 

Parents may feel this form of empathy most intensely, not always with positive effect. I once asked my neighbor Jim, father of five, why he seemed downcast whenever I saw him. He said, “As a father, I can only be as happy as my least happy child.” That’s the risk that comes with the empathy of feeling. We can feel too much, to the point where we get lost in another’s pain and are hurting rather than helping ourselves as well as the object of our concern. We can reduce this particular risk, says the French empathy expert Hortense le Gentil, with a well-intended come-and-go strategy: “By all means, share the other person’s feelings,” she says, “but do not stay too long at the party. Join in and then get out.” 

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