The One Skill Everyone Should Grow for 2022

As employers across industries experience The Great Resignation, empathy is having a moment. Which is great except that while empathy is the root of progress, on its own it isn’t necessarily a good thing. By definition, empathy is the ability to understand and share someone else’s feelings. That’s it. It has nothing to do with what you do after the feelings are shared. In fact, for some people, feeling other people’s stuff can be overwhelming, while for others, it doesn’t inspire action at all.

Having empathy alone isn’t enough. But practicing emotionally intelligent, compassionate empathy? That’s a skill worth working on, and soon it will be table stakes for leaders who prefer their staff doesn’t mutiny. The good news is you can start growing your compassionate empathy skills instantly and can learn and improve them forever.

The three types of empathy

First, let’s get into the nuance of empathy, starting with three commonly held differences in how it’s experienced: cognitive, emotional, and compassionate empathy.

  • Cognitive empathy is understanding how a person feels and what they might be thinking.
  • Emotional, or affective, empathy is the ability to share another’s feelings, like when you get uncomfortable watching someone else be embarrassed.
  • Compassionate empathy, or empathetic concern, involves not just understanding or feeling a person’s feelings, but being compelled to take action in order to help.

Compassionate empathy kicks in at work when you begin thinking of everyone around you as a fellow human. Not part of your “work family,” not a teammate, not just your nemesis (as tempting as that may be), but a whole human with an entire life outside of your jobs. In fact, most of their existences have been and will be completely unrelated to your shared time in the workplace. They are sleeping, eating, family-having, former little kid-being, awkward teenagerhood-surviving weirdos like you. You don’t need to have had the exact same experiences as someone to have compassionate empathy, you just need to have had experiences.

Which brings us to the next point in the nuance of empathy — the importance of self-empathy and compassion.

It’s not emotional intelligence if you’re suffering

There’s a common misconception that being empathetic is the pinnacle of emotional intelligence. But just feeling what someone else is feeling without compassionate action doesn’t accomplish anything. And kindness and compassion for other people without boundaries isn’t emotional intelligence if you’re suffering.Emotional intelligence, also known as EQ, is being aware of your own and other people’s emotions in the moment, and using that information to manage yourself and your relationships. It’s complicated! And it definitely isn’t about selflessness. In fact, true EQ isn’t possible without serious self-awareness. In the same way, compassionate empathy works best when compassion and empathy are spread all around.

Because everyone experiences and expresses empathy differently, the only experience we can be certain of is our own. Not only does self-empathy help us create boundaries to protect ourselves, it also makes us better at understanding what our compassion feels like. Like how a chef knows what they’re serving up by tasting it along the way. It also means we won’t give away our kindness to anyone at any cost, just because we understand and even feel compassion for someone, it doesn’t mean we should tolerate and encourage their bad behavior.

The many applications of compassionate empathy

Interpersonal interactions, policy decisions, anti-racism, inclusion, inspirational leadership, innovation, sales and marketing, learning — all fall flat without compassionate empathy. A leader with a cool idea might sparkle for a little while, but without substance, they either fade out or turn into assholes. The slickest sales team with the strongest offer still needs to connect to bring in and keep customers. The best-intentioned DEIJ allies tend not to get past the book club stage without using their experiences to understand the experiences of their underrepresented colleagues in order to take action. But none of it sticks if everyone is so burned out on expending empathetic energy they’re ready to move to the woods and live out their My Side of the Mountain fantasies.

Get started growing your compassionate empathy skills

You can start practicing emotionally intelligent compassionate empathy right now by paying attention to a single regularly occurring situation. Maybe it’s the way a standing meeting always goes down, or certain kinds of email exchanges. Then dive deeper:

Observe who’s participating, what they do, what’s at stake, likely obstacles and motivations for everyone.

  • Examine what you’re getting out of the situation, professionally, emotionally, relationally.
  • Explore different outcomes for different ways you could respond.
  • Respond based on what you believe will be the best possible outcome.
  • Learn from the results, behave accordingly.

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