Empathy: What it is, Why it

Empathy. Without it, you can’t understand your learners—what they do, what they see, what they hear and experience. You also can’t understand how to partner effectively with stakeholders, Subject Matter Experts, or fellow designers to manage your projects. Without understanding and collaboration, you can’t really design effective solutions. And if you can’t design things that actually work, what’s the point of designing anything at all?

Fundamentally, empathy is an interpersonal skill. It’s the ability to relate to others—to be caring and compassionate. It requires a certain amount of emotional intelligence, that is, the ability to read other people’s mental and emotional states. For designers, you could say that empathy is a bit of a superpower—equal parts gift and curse, since having it gives you the ability to emotionally connect with others, but using it may also drain your own emotional energy reserves.

As design skills go, empathy is often overlooked. When people are evaluating whether someone’s fit for an instructional design or e-learning role, they tend to focus on technical skills, familiarity with the subject matter, or prior training experience. Rarely does an ability to empathize with others come into play beyond discussing basic problem-solving abilities—and those conversations usually focus more on the results, rather than the route.

I’ve already written about why empathy is essential to design thinking and, therefore, an essential skill for e-learning professionals. So in this article, I’d like to shift focus and talk more explicitly about how you can evaluate your ability to empathize with others—and what you can do about it if it’s lacking.

Signs That You’re Lacking Empathy

Lacking empathy sounds like a pretty awful thing. After all, unless you’re a narcissist, isn’t everyone born knowing how to care about other people? Isn’t that what a moral, considerate person does?

Whoa. Not so fast. Before you get ahead of yourself and start judging, let’s acknowledge the real reason why empathy doesn’t always come so easily to everyone: it’s exhausting. Not all of us are wired to experience empathy in the same way. Being empathetic just comes more easily to some folks than it does to others. A number of factors can influence your ability to empathize. Running low on empathy doesn’t always mean you’re clinically disturbed or morally bankrupt.

So what are the signs that you’re not experiencing empathy for others? And how can you tell if a lack of empathy is impacting your work? Here are six signs to consider.

  1. You don’t easily imagine yourself in someone else’s shoes. Empathetic people tend to have the ability to slip into someone else’s shoes pretty effortlessly. Being able to do this makes certain designers very skilled at their jobs.

    But if slipping into someone else’s shoes feels foreign to you, or just requires a lot of effort, it could mean your ability to empathize is on the low end of the spectrum.
  2. You keep having the same communication challenges over and over again. Have you ever thought to yourself: I think I’m pretty good at my job, but no one around here listens to me?

    Whenever you run into the same communication challenges over and over again in your relationships, either work or personal, it’s usually a clue that you are the problem. Troubles with communication are often rooted in a struggle to correctly interpret people’s emotions or by an inability to see things from others’ perspectives.
  3. You think everyone else is overly sensitive. If your co-workers have criticized your off-color sense of humor or you’ve been reprimanded for making insensitive remarks, you may have chalked it up to everyone else simply overreacting or being too politically correct. But the truth is, you’re probably out of touch with the social norms in your workplace—another indicator of a potential empathy problem.
  4. You get annoyed when others expect you to know how they feel. Here’s a scenario: a Subject Matter Expert sends you some slides for a project. You tell her that you’ll need more time than you originally thought because you have to rewrite everything she’s sent. She asks why and you tell her it’s full of spelling and grammar errors—basically that it's a mess. Later, she tells you that your response made her feel stupid and you feel annoyed that you’re now losing valuable time “smoothing things over” with her.

    An inability to appreciate other people’s emotions, for better or worse, may make you appear aloof, cold, or just rude—making it hard for people to really trust or open up to you.
  5. You’ve been described at work as someone who “tells it like it is.” While you might see yourself as independent, no b.s., or direct, others may see you as someone who’s not a team player.

    People who lack empathy are often described as lacking self-awareness, being pushy, or lacking subtlety. They fail to understand how their words and actions make others feel.
  6. Your parents weren’t very empathetic. I know, I know. It sounds like we’re about to pick on Mom and Dad, but hear me out: there is some research around mirror neurons (specialized brain cells) which suggests that much of our early childhood learning happens from watching and emulating how our parents interact with others. Empathy is thought to be one of those early skills we pick up when it’s modeled for us.

    If you weren’t raised in an environment where the adults modeled empathy, this may put you at a bit of a disadvantage, resulting in you needing a little help to consciously develop your empathy skills as an adult.

Recognize any of these signs in yourself? If so, keep in mind that you probably didn’t make a  conscious choice to lack empathy. Sometimes our brains shield us from internalizing the feelings of others—especially if you’re working in an environment where intense emotional engagement isn’t valued or supported (think law enforcement). Or, maybe you’ve found yourself feeling overwhelmed by the intensity of emotions in your environment (think hospice setting). We’re all constantly bombarded by the stories and experiences of strangers, both at work, at home, and via social media. It’s no wonder so many of us feel some level of emotional burnout.

Regardless of the factors influencing your capacity to empathize, there are strategies you can embrace to develop your empathy skills. Let’s take a closer look at a few of them.

Strategies for Building Empathy

Think you’ve got empathy issues? Not sure how to build empathy? Here are a few strategies that can help.

  • Ask for and listen to input from others. Self-awareness is critical to addressing any kind of performance problem. Start building your self-awareness by asking for feedback from others, either formally (like a one-on-one with your boss) or informally (like a casual lunch conversation with a colleague). Asking for this feedback can help you identify what others perceive as the social norms of your workplace, and can highlight specific behaviors you’ve exhibited that have undermined your working relationships or otherwise negatively impacted your work.

    The key thing to remember here is that you must be open-minded. To make this a worthwhile exercise, you need to do more listening than talking. Set aside your preconceived notions about how the conversation should go. Forget about making excuses to defend yourself, and simply listen. When it comes to working with others, perception is reality, so focus on accepting their feedback—the good and the bad— owning it, and embracing a real commitment to personal and professional growth.
  • Recognize that your words and actions have power. People who lack empathy tend to struggle with communicating. They may forget that their words and actions can have a direct impact on how others feel. Even simple things like how you frame the scope of a project task can be the difference between making someone feel stupid or gaining their buy-in for collaboration.

    If you find that you’re prone to “saying the wrong thing,” try focusing, instead, on how you want to make people feel. For example, do you want to motivate someone? Think about how you can reframe your message into a more inspirational one. Do you want to gain buy-in? Reframe your message using more persuasive language.
  • Listen for understanding. People who lack empathy are often known for interrupting or always trying to dominate the conversation. This, obviously, is a huge problem for designers whose job largely depends on listening and letting others do the talking.

    Instead of approaching a project meeting or a conversation with a stakeholder as an opportunity for you to assert your expertise and be heard, think of it as an opportunity for you to listen and learn. Instead of speeding past everyone else’s words to get to the next opening for you to talk, remind yourself to slow down. Focus on the substance of what’s being said. Take notes and ask confirming questions to make sure you’ve fully understood other people’s perspectives before you jump in with your ideas.
  • Expand your circles. Surrounding yourself with the stories and perspectives of people from all different walks of life paves the way for understanding and empathy.

    But how do you expand your circles to meet new people? One trick is to connect with the "Connectors" in your life. We all know and work with Connectors. These are the folks who have loads of friends, or who always seem to be at the center of a large group of people at events. Connectors are usually open, friendly people who are easier to get to know. Although it may be hard, push yourself out of your self-imposed isolation bubble and keep in mind that Connectors are usually collectors—they don’t want a deep and lasting friendship from you, they simply enjoy connecting people and want to add you to their network of friends.

    Don’t know any Connectors? Look online at social media groups on LinkedIn or active contributors on Twitter. Another option: check out local meet-ups, user groups, or professional development events where you can meet, mingle, and slowly learn to expand your horizons.

More Learning

If you feel like your career growth is stalled, or you just want to think about what’s next, it’s always a good idea to pause and consider your goals and what’s holding you back from achieving them. I’m the first to admit: it’s not always easy to be honest with yourself and to scrutinize your strengths and weaknesses. But it is almost always time well-spent.

Did you enjoy this deep dive into this overlooked design skill? (I know I sure learned a lot!) If so, here are some excellent resources to continue your learning.

What interpersonal skills are you trying to develop? Share your journey with the friendly community here on E-Learning Heroes by leaving us a comment or starting your own discussion. Follow us on Twitter and come back to E-Learning Heroes regularly for more helpful advice on everything related to e-learning.

Adrienne E

Great article Trina! I think empathy as a skill is often overlooked. One other piece of advice I'd add, which I learned from my mom (a psychiatrist): it's important to remember that everyone's behavior makes sense in their own head. I've sometimes found myself in situations where I felt someone else was behaving irrationally or inappropriately, so I dismissed what they were saying because I figured they were overreacting. But, as my mom would say, that person is reacting appropriately-- you just don't understand the context in which their reaction is appropriate. So in a work context, if you're surprised by someone's reaction to something, it might be easy to say that the person is overly negative, exaggerating, etc. But it's much more likely that they know something about the situat... Expand