Why Empathy Is a Crucial Entrepreneurial Skill (and How to Develop Yours)

woman puts hand on shoulder of man with empathy

Even a casual glance at today’s headlines tells a troubling story. From recent increases in worker resignations across all fields to a noticeable uptick in interpersonal conflicts at workplaces or in airline flights, as well as the ever-increasing political divide, it seems clear that there’s just not empathy in the world.

Empathy is a crucial trait in business workspaces, given the close and cooperative nature of the environment. When you work with people consistently for extended periods of time, your ability to empathize with them directly impacts their performance and yours.

Fortunately, empathy isn’t one of those traits you either have or don’t have. You can develop and grow it over time with a bit of attention and focused effort. By demonstrating and practicing empathy, you begin to actually feel what others feel. You’ll also better understand those emotions on an intellectual level.

What empathy is (and isn’t)

Empathy is the ability to identify, understand and personally share the emotions and thoughts of another person. It’s not the same as sympathy, where you might feel concern or pity for another. Rather, it requires a shared point of view and a fuller understanding of a person’s specific emotional response.

Psychologists have identified three different types of empathy:

  1. Cognitive empathy is the ability to distinguish different emotional states in other people;
  2. Emotional empathy is actually feeling some of what that other person is feeling; and
  3. Compassionate empathy is knowing what the other person is feeling, experiencing that emotion yourself, and wanting to take some kind of action to help that person feel better.

Although each form of empathy can help you become a better business owner and entrepreneur, compassionate empathy in particular helps you relate more deeply to your team members and employees.

Why empathy is a crucial entrepreneurial skill

Employees are increasingly feeling stressed out, undervalued and unappreciated. That might in part be contributing to the great resignation movement. Empathy from the top levels of the company helps alleviate those issues so employees will be less likely to resign and more likely to perform better on the job.

Empathy is a crucial interpersonal skill that helps you better lead your team, improve employee engagement and grow worker loyalty to your company. It also helps you make better decisions that take into consideration all relevant factors, including those that impact the people working for you. Finally, empathy may also help you assess another person’s emotional response to a work-related issue more objectively and manage the situation more effectively and appropriately.

Develop your workplace empathy skills with practice

If empathy isn’t something that flows naturally for you, try practicing it. Just like playing a musical instrument or any other skill, empathy can be developed through a routine series of practical steps.

To practice empathy, try these steps, suggested by Andrea Brandt in a 2018 article for Psychology Today:

  1. Consider someone you know fairly well and have spent some time with over several days recently. This could be an employee, a member of your family, a fellow executive or a friend.
  2. How would you describe their temperament over the last few days?
  3. Next, brainstorm potential causes for that mood. What has transpired in their life that might be contributing to their emotional state?
  4. What part might you be playing in creating that mood, even unintentionally?
  5. Can you put yourself in your friend or colleague’s shoes and try to feel what they’re feeling now?
  6. Finally, consider what you can do to help improve the situation for the person.

Spend some time each week engaging in this exercise and you’ll find your natural sense of empathy begins to develop. Soon, it will flow more readily and won’t require your focused effort.

Expressing empathy

Much of the work we can do to demonstrate and practice empathy in any context, but especially in the workplace, has to do with the words we choose to express ourselves.

The mere act of asking an open-ended question is a nice way to make others feel heard and valued, especially when it’s a supervisor or leader who’s asking. Thoughtful questions tell your team members that you’re engaged in the discussion, that you’re listening, and that you’re interested in resolving issues fairly.

You can let others know you’re trying to see things from their perspective with the words you choose. Expressing empathy helps you show your intention and effort to understand others more fully. Specific phrases you can use to convey more individualized empathy include:

  • “How are you feeling today/right now/about what just happened?”
  • “I’m sorry to hear that.”
  • “I think I’d feel the same way in that situation.”
  • “What can I do to help?”
  • “Do you want to talk about it? I’d like to listen.”
  • “Way to go! You did incredible work there.”

Other ways to put empathy into practice

In addition to changing your vocabulary, asking open-ended questions, expressing gratitude and concern, and occasionally practicing empathy exercises, try the following tips:

  • Listen actively: Asking the question is only the first step. You also need to engage fully with the other person by actively listening to them as they answer. Restrain the natural urge to begin formulating your response while the other person is speaking. Instead, let their comments sink in and try to reformulate their response in your own words and ask for clarification until you fully understand their point of view.
  • Make worker wellness a priority: Nothing demonstrates your empathy for your team members more than showing them that their health and well-being is your priority. Create in-house programs and third-party relationships with companies that help your employees maintain their physical and emotional health.
  • Withhold quick judgment: As an entrepreneur, you’re often pressured to make quick decisions. However, in more individual settings, empathy may require a slower approach. Rushing to judgment may stop you from seeing things from the other person’s perspective.
  • Get feedback from others: This often feels uncomfortable for business owners and leaders, but the simple fact is that there’s nothing more effective for developing a new skill than finding out how well you’re doing from others. Ask a trusted colleague or team member for feedback on how well you’re demonstrating empathy and relating to others. Take their input to heart and work to strengthen those weaknesses.

Put yourself in their shoes

A little empathy can go a long way towards creating a more positive, productive and cohesive workplace. Practice active listening, ask the right questions and practice empathetic reasoning to help strengthen your ability to understand fully what others are feeling and thinking. The benefits include greater productivity and a happier workforce.

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