"You never really understand another person until you consider things from his point of view - until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it."
-- Atticus in Harper Lee's classic novel To Kill A Mockingbird
Empathy has been slowing turning into a buzzword. But what is it really? And why is it necessary?
I always like to start these conversations by defining the terms we are using so we are aligned on what we are discussing.
To get started, empathy according to Merriam Webster is defined as:
the imaginative projection of a subjective state into an object so that the object appears to be infused with it
2: the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also : the capacity for this
Sometimes, empathy is confused with sympathy. But they are quite different. Brene Brown helps us understand the difference in this video:
Empathy allows you to relate to what someone else feels like and what that person may be going through. Sympathy doesn't allow that much of an intense emotional connection between people; it is about observing someone going through something difficult.
Psychology Today defined the differences between the two, but they included pity and compassion.
Pity is a feeling of discomfort at the distress of one or more sentient beings, and often has paternalistic or condescending overtones. Implicit in the notion of pity is that its object does not deserve its plight, and, moreover, is unable to prevent, reverse, or overturn it. Pity is less engaged than empathy, sympathy, or compassion, amounting to little more than a conscious acknowledgement of the plight of its object.
Sympathy (‘fellow feeling’, ‘community of feeling’) is a feeling of care and concern for someone, often someone close, accompanied by a wish to see him better off or happier. Compared to pity, sympathy implies a greater sense of shared similarities together with a more profound personal engagement. However, sympathy, unlike empathy, does not involve a shared perspective or shared emotions, and while the facial expressions of sympathy do convey caring and concern, they do not convey shared distress.
Compassion (‘suffering with’) is more engaged than simple empathy, and is associated with an active desire to alleviate the suffering of its object. With empathy, I share your emotions; with compassion I not only share your emotions but also elevate them into a universal and transcending experience. Compassion, which builds upon empathy, is one of the main motivators of altruism.
-- Neel Burton, MD, Empathy Vs Sympathy, Psychology Today
I also created a chart to sum this up (I included it in a previous blog post, but just in case for reference):
Products are created out of empathy. Products are sold and marketed through compassion.
- Identifies a problem
- Observes others with that same problem
- Realizes that there is a solution
- Creates the solution
The researchers then primed some managers to be empathetic by having them describe a typical customer of the offering and imagine that person’s thoughts and reactions. All managers were asked to predict customers’ desires and took a survey assessing empathy levels. The more empathetic managers were, the more “egocentric” they became; that is, the more likely they were to say that the customers’ preferences were the same as their own.-- Scott Berinato, Putting Yourself in the Customer’s Shoes Doesn’t Work: An Interview with Johannes Hattula, Harvard Business Review
- Doesn't have a lot of cash
- Wants good quality food to stay somewhat healthy
- Would prefer to use his food plan that parents or scholarship pays for
- Doesn't have a lot of time to eat
- Wants something tasty and fun - not vile and gross like institutional food can be