I’ve noticed that when we’re having conversations at work, many of us confuse empathy with sympathy. Sympathy is feeling for a person. It often involves feeling sorry for someone. But empathy is feeling with a person — an important distinction. When we’re empathetic, we put ourselves in others’ shoes and imagine the world from their perspective.

Humans have an innate ability to feel empathy. The mirror neurons in our brains pick up other people’s conscious and unconscious cues. This triggers our own feelings and thoughts, allowing us to align with others. Our brain waves actually sync up.

Empathy is critical if you’re interested in persuading others, reaching mutually beneficial solutions, or building connection and influence. And yet, we could all learn to use it better and more effectively.

The research is clear: Members of high-performing teams consistently show high levels of empathy for one another. They care enough to ask:

  • What makes you who you are?
  • What do you really care about?

Mastering Everyday Empathy

Authors Belle Linda Halpern and Kathy Lubar offer three key guidelines for everyday empathy in Leadership Presence: Dramatic Techniques to Reach Out, Motivate, and Inspire (Gotham Books, 2004). The first guideline is to:

Learn what makes a person tick: Make it a goal to find out more about people: what they like, dislike and are passionate about. The mere act of asking a question or two soothes the way for future conversations and collaboration. It doesn’t take much time, doesn’t annoy anyone (unless done inappropriately) and can be fun.

Of course, it’s easier with people you like and more difficult with someone you dislike or mistrust. Try it with a wide range of people to see how asking questions improves communication.

In coaching clients, I spend time discussing this. How well you ask questions of others and really get to know the people you work with is a good indication of how much you engage in empathetic conversations.

Learning more about the people you work with is key. It’s not difficult and it doesn’t take much time. How often do you start conversations to see, hear and really appreciate people?

If you want to find out how to improve your empathy, I’d love to hear from you; you can contact me here or on LinkedIn.