Archive: A Reputation for Empathy — from the Career Opportunities Podcast

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Empathy is the ability to understand the feelings or situation of another person. As you might imagine, empathy is a very important trait for those people who want to successfully collaborate with others, whether as co-workers, manager and staff or client and consultant. If you are unable to connect with others or truly understand what they might be feeling, you set yourself apart like a modern day Marie Antoinette, giving advice without any real understanding of the world around you. Other people are quick to catch on when you lack empathy or any real understanding of how they are feeling. This diminishes your effectiveness with others and can put your career at risk.


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Lack of empathy

It is very likely that you have met or worked with people who don’t have a reputation for empathy. They seem unable to relate to you in any way except in formal, rule-bound contexts. Your personal crises and emergencies mean nothing to them except in how it impacts their needs, their schedules and their work. They can’t seem to imagine that you have important issues that must be handled, regardless of the work that needs to be done.

The usual phrases you will hear when people are describing someone who lacks empathy is “They are cold. They don’t understand. They don’t care.” The last phrase is the most damaging. If you want to motivate others and accomplish great things, those around you must know that you care about both them and their work. Once they discover you don’t care, or more likely, don’t understand how your actions are being perceived, it is a long road back to productivity.

As I discussed in a previous column in this series, trust, and feelings of trust, are one of the most important parts of your reputation. When you show a lack of empathy, you are violating the bond of trust that must exist between yourself and others. If your co-workers, your manager or your employees don’t see a certain level of empathy displayed in your actions toward them, they will come to trust you less. In fact, it quickly becomes clear that you value rules and money far above the average person. Would you trust someone like this? Probably not. So, it should be very clear why people wouldn’t trust you, either.

Overly empathetic

As with anything, the extremes are best avoided. I have seen some people who are overly empathetic. They take each crisis and emergency as their own. They seem to suffer as much as the person directly connected with the problem. While understanding the feelings of those around is great, taking on the burdens of others is not. The fact is, the problem isn’t happening to you. You can do little to resolve it. You can help others with their issues, but you can’t make those issues your own, no matter how empathetic you are.

Developing a reputation for empathy allows you to build your career in many ways, but it isn’t something that is created overnight. It is a long process of showing your empathy in everyday ways. Like all the other reputations the proof of your reputations lies in your actions, not in your words. You show your empathy in everything you do.

A reputation for empathy will allow you to work more closely with others, as they will begin to feel that you understand their needs, feelings and issues in a way that others never cultivate. Teamwork will flourish in such an environment, as there is a stable base of understanding that allows differing opinions and even conflict. Your co-workers and managers can safely disagree with one another and develop better plans and projects, because they know that underneath it all, is a sense of connection that overrides all else.

The next time you are inclined to push and push, without regard to the feelings and issues of others, take a moment to consider how you would feel when placed in such a position. Imagine asking for a little understanding, a little time off or a small change that would allow you to better cope. Would you deny this to yourself? Then don’t deny it to others. Empathizing with others starts with understanding ourselves more and more deeply, so that we can share that understanding with others.


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