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Posted on March 8, 2017
Two silloutte faces with words in each image

How many times have you heard "Put yourself in someone else's shoes..."? The ability to understand how another person's beliefs, feelings and experiences makes them feel is known as empathy.

Ernest Wilson III, along with his colleagues at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, conducted a three-year study. They asked business leaders what "attributes executives must have to succeed in today's digital, global economy." Empathy landed at the top of the list.

But what does empathy really entail?

"It is a deep emotional intelligence that is closely connected to cultural competence," Wilson notes. Empathy enables those who possess it to see the world through others' eyes and understand their perspectives."

Colleen Kettenhofen, a corporate trainer, motivational speaker, management expert and author, argues that "Empathy is not sympathy. It does not mean you have to agree with how someone is feeling or even be able to relate to their feelings."

Despite empathy being so desirable, Wilson points out that they discovered via an unpublished survey of their graduates over a ten-year period that "empathy is most lacking among middle managers and senior executives: the very people who need it most because their actions affect large numbers of people."

Can one learn to be empathetic? Is this a learnable skill?

I believe that, with practice, empathy is a skill one can learn, and it begins with listening. You cannot begin to be empathetic if you can't make yourself available to listen to the other person. Active listening is not easy, because it involves focusing 100% of your attention on the person speaking. This means putting down your phone, disregarding the distractions, and paying attention so you can process what is being said and how it is being said.

Connecting with the other person is also necessary. This means understanding who they are outside of the small world in which you may know them. This helps you give context to their beliefs and feelings.

Casting aside your judgment is critical. As Kettenhofen noted, empathy does not mean you need to agree with the person, but you can't sit in judgment, either. This may, perhaps, be the most difficult part of learning to be empathetic, because it involves us letting go of preconceived notions about others and about ourselves. First, recognize when you are making judgments, which often occurs out of fear or our need to be "right."

The Center for Extraordinary Relationships offers five steps to becoming less judgmental:

  • Be willing to admit that you have developed an ideal version of yourself and your judgments are reflections of trying to live up to that ideal version of yourself
  • Everyone is judgmental and you can't control how others judge you.
  • Stop comparing yourself to others; this comparison breeds insecurity, anxiety and depression.
  • Be realistic — you are not always going to get your way, and life is not always going to go your way.
  • Practice self-compassion. Feel better about yourself — it will bring more peace to your life.

Reflection is another pathway toward feeling empathy, and it must be used to self-assess one’s progress. Acknowledging where you began on the empathy scale will help you move forward. Then, assessing the movement — what was easy, what was difficult, where you succeeded and where you failed — will help you learn, enhance and perfect these skills.

Finally, without actively practicing, you can never develop these skills. Practice every day.

Not sure how empathetic you are? I recommend taking this (non-scientific) quiz to give you an idea. Answer truthfully. It will give you a score and a short report.

Now try putting yourself in someone else’s shoes today.


Anne Converse Willkomm
Director of Graduate Studies
Goodwin College
Drexel University
Posted in leadership-management-skills, interpersonal-communications