Why is Empathy Important?

In short: Studies have shown those high in emotional intelligence are 4 times more likely to succeed then those low in emotional intelligence. 

Empathy is a HUGE part of emotional intelligence.

In this post we’re going to show you EVERYTHING you need to know about empathy.

What empathy is.

Why it is so important.

And how it can help you improve your interactions with the people you work with.

Let’s dive right in.

What is Empathy?

Recently, I have been reading a lot of different articles about empathy, and I started thinking about how important a part empathy plays in the make-up of effective communication. 

Is empathy really that important when you are communicating? And if so, how can you develop your empathy skills?

What I’ve found was very interesting, today I’m going to show you some very well researched information on empathy that very few people know about.

According to Daniel Goleman, the renowned psychologist who developed the concept of Emotional intelligence; 

“A person without empathy is emotionally tone deaf.” 

And the latest research seems to back that idea, saying that 98% of people on the planet have a built-in ability to demonstrate empathy, it is hard wired into our brain. The only exceptions to this are those with psychopathic tendencies.

Lack of Empathy

Roots of Empathy

Neuropsychologist Simon Baron-Cohen devised a test called Reading the Mind in the Eyes where people were shown 36 pairs of eyes and asked to choose one of four words that best describes what each person is feeling or thinking – for example, jealousy, arrogance or hate. The average score of around 26 suggests that most people are surprisingly good at visually reading others’ emotions.

So, the question is, if most of us are born with this capacity to understand how others are feeling, to be able to step into their shoes and see things from their perspective, why does this natural ability not always shine through in everyday life, why are there some people that lack empathy?

Empathy Example – (Gone Wrong)

Perhaps you’ve found yourself in a similar position to the one I found myself in recently. My elderly neighbour was outside the front of her house, across the road from me. She had put a cabinet out on her drive that she no longer needed, I guess she thought that someone might walk by who needed it and would take it off her hands. Anyway, it started to rain so she came out to take the cabinet back inside, so it wouldn’t get damaged. I was just leaving for work, in a massive rush as I was late for an important meeting. As I ran out to my car, I could see her struggling to get this cabinet back inside her house, yet the decision I quickly made in my head was that getting to my meeting on time was more important than stopping to help my neighbour. I jumped in my car and pulled off my driveway, leaving my elderly neighbour struggling in the rain.

Sounds awful doesn’t it? And maybe you are reading this now thinking; “There is no way I would do that! I would have stopped and helped her!” And maybe some of you would have. I certainly wish I had made a different decision that day! But everyone will be able to recall occasions when their natural empathy is overridden by another emotion or desire. Perhaps you find yourself passing by a mother struggling with a pram on some steps as you rush to work, or maybe you find yourself shouting in frustration at your children or your partner, without thinking about what sort of day they might have had.

Sounds awful doesn’t it? And maybe you are reading this now thinking; “There is no way I would do that! I would have stopped and helped her!” And maybe some of you would have. I certainly wish I had made a different decision that day! But everyone will be able to recall occasions when their natural empathy is overridden by another emotion or desire. Perhaps you find yourself passing by a mother struggling with a pram on some steps as you rush to work, or maybe you find yourself shouting in frustration at your children or your partner, without thinking about what sort of day they might have had.

How to Show Empathy

The answer to why we do not always demonstrate these natural empathetic tendencies lies in the way we are taught as children, according to Jessica Alexander, author of The Danish Way of Parenting, who says:

“Empathy is the ability to recognize another’s emotions or more simply put—being able to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. Other countries, for example, America, are much more individual based. Being a winner and striving to be the best are very normal goals for us. This equates to success and I don’t think we really question it. It is just part of our culture. Winning means a lot. Perhaps one of the major differences between Denmark and America is that Danes value teamwork much more than striving to be a star. And with that, they actively teach empathy.”

Further evidence to back up this theory is illustrated in the recent history of the Ryder Cup. The famous golf competition held every 2 years pits the best American golfers against the best Europe has to offer in a tournament that relies on teamwork as much as individual ability. As the Ryder Cup comes around its fair to say that most of the time it is American golfers who occupy the majority of the Top 10 rankings in the world at that time, yet in the last 30 years, Europe has won the competition twice as many times as the Americans. After each European win, the call is the same – the Americans are fantastic players as individuals and they are all winners. But in a game that usually relies solely on individual ability, they are not able to come together and work as a team to secure the victory.

Individual Effort

World Top 10 Golfers 

6 out of 10 are from the USA

Teamwork

Ryder Cup Winners 

USA only won 3 out of 12

Teaching Empathy

In Denmark they are brought up to believe that being able to trust and understand each other is key to achieving happiness. And they do seem to have it figured out, with research consistently showing that residents of Denmark are among the happiest in the world!

As Jessica Alexander says:

“All the latest neurological research shows that humans get more happiness from cooperating with others than from winning alone. Scientists have discovered ‘the social brain,’ which lights up to show that we are driven by something beyond self-interest: We are driven towards social connectedness. Caring relationships are one of the biggest predictors of happiness, well above money. It used to be believed that humans were innately selfish, but that is simply not true. We are all wired for empathy from birth. We just have to learn how to connect the wires to make it work. And kids can be taught this.”

And these ideas are introduced at a very early age in Danish schools. Now, “Empathy training” is certainly not something I was ever taught at school! But when you look at the reasoning behind why children are being taught empathy, it’s difficult to argue against it.

And these ideas are introduced at a very early age in Danish schools. Now, “Empathy training” is certainly not something I was ever taught at school! But when you look at the reasoning behind why children are being taught empathy, it’s difficult to argue against it.

Ways to Improve Empathy Skills

Empathy teaching understands that our children are always mirroring us, so the language we use is so important. How do we describe others? Are we understanding or judgemental? Talking about others in front of children saying things like “She is mean”, or “He is selfish” is not empathic language because it doesn’t recognise the emotions behind the actions, it is just labelling.

As parents, we need to find ways to get our children to understand another child’s behaviour without a negative label, by teaching there is always a reason behind the behaviour. Children do not misbehave for no reason. So, “He is annoying” becomes “Do you think maybe he is hungry? Or could he be tired because he missed his afternoon nap? You know how it feels be to be hungry and tired don’t you?” Or, “She is mean” becomes “It sounds like she had a bad day at school. The other day you said she was nice. She is actually nice, isn’t she?”  Helping children understand the feelings behind behaviours is a key part of teaching empathy.

As parents, we need to find ways to get our children to understand another child’s behaviour without a negative label, by teaching there is always a reason behind the behaviour. Children do not misbehave for no reason. So, “He is annoying” becomes “Do you think maybe he is hungry? Or could he be tired because he missed his afternoon nap? You know how it feels be to be hungry and tired don’t you?” Or, “She is mean” becomes “It sounds like she had a bad day at school. The other day you said she was nice. She is actually nice, isn’t she?”  Helping children understand the feelings behind behaviours is a key part of teaching empathy.

How to Develop Empathy Skills

They also teach children to try to understand their own emotions. Parents often try to tell children what they should feel or think. For example; your child might tell you he is hungry. If you are out and about and busy you might respond with “no, you’re not!” Alternatively, if your child tells you they are not hungry at dinner time, you may respond with “You should be hungry! Now eat your dinner!” Telling children how they should feel is not letting them learn to self-regulate their own feelings, which is such an important lesson to teach them.

Learning Empathy

Another way in which they teach children empathy is by reading all kinds of stories to children, not only happy ones. Talking about difficult emotions in books is a great way to build empathy. Many Danish children’s books are shocking in comparison to other countries with the topics they cover, but studies have shown that reading about all emotions increases a child’s ability to empathize. The original Little Mermaid, which is a Danish story, doesn’t get the prince in the end, but rather dies of sadness and turns into sea foam! Can you imagine that ending in the Disney film!

Empathy Skills 

Empathy is a hugely important part of effective communication. Whether it be your child or a loved one, or an employee at work. The ability to put yourself in their shoes and see things from their perspective, rather than judging them or assuming they are thinking the same way that you would, is so important. It helps with your fact-finding and enables you to come to a conclusion that is fair and balanced.

Empathy Skills Training

Regrettably, this is not always the case. In situations where emotions run high or in high pressured situations, our “win at all costs” attitude can easily take over and empathy for the other person gets pushed aside, leading to judgemental and unbalanced decision making. Perhaps more countries need to look at the Danish model of teaching empathy in schools, to enable our children to grow up in a fairer, more understanding society.

Which do you find more difficult? 

Remembering to be empathetic at work with your team or using empathy with the people you interact with outside of work?