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The Importance of Empathy: How to Strengthen Our Ability to Be Empathic?

By — Dr. Robert Brooks
Updated on Mar 16, 2009

A common characteristic of individuals who are successful as business leaders, teachers, parents, spouses, or healthcare professionals is their ability to be empathic. Empathic people are skilled in placing themselves inside the shoes of another person and seeing the world through that person’s eyes. It is not surprising that Daniel Goleman listed empathy as one of the main components of emotional intelligence. In my activities as a therapist and consultant as well as in my personal life, I have come to believe that empathy is implicated in all of our relationships, impacting on the satisfaction and effectiveness with which we interact with others.

People who are empathic have developed a mindset that asks, “In anything I say or do, am I saying or doing it in a way in which other people will be most responsive to listening to me?” By posing this question, I am not suggesting that we assume the role of amateur psychologist, attempting to analyze every word we utter in every interaction we have (if we did, we are likely to become disorganized, overwhelmed, and paralyzed), but rather that we keep in mind that if we want others to appreciate what we are communicating, if we want others to respond to and work cooperatively with us, then we must consider their perspective and how they perceive us. I know that I attempt to use empathy to guide all aspects of my work, influencing not only what I say, but how I say things, and directing the kinds of questions I ask that will nurture empathy in others. For instance, when I am engaged in marital therapy it is not unusual for me to ask each spouse to describe how he or she feels the other views the marriage, or to ask parents to describe how they think their child sees them, or to ask business leaders how their employees would describe them. These questions have a common purpose, namely, to assess and place the spotlight on empathy.

In my workshops I am frequently asked if empathy can be learned. The question is posed in several forms. Those raising or working with children wonder if there are ways of increasing a child’s capacity to be empathic, especially aware that a lack of empathy can be a risk factor that compromises the formation of friendships and even contributes to some children hurting others. Parents have also wondered whether their own ability to be empathic can be strengthened. In a similar fashion business leaders have asked what is necessary to enhance empathy in themselves and in their employees. While some individuals, such as those with so-called easy temperaments who grow up in homes where empathy is an essential ingredient of family life, will have an easier time developing empathy than others, I believe it is a skill that can be nurtured even in those children and adults who I would describe as having an “empathy deficit.” Before considering what steps we can take to strengthen empathy in ourselves, it may be helpful to examine briefly some of the obstacles that we may face as we take these steps. An increased awareness of these obstacles will lessen their potency and make them easier to manage.

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