The term empathy has been steadily gaining visibility for years. It’s not a hunch; as per Google Trends, its popularity has doubled in the last 10 years. This shift can be explained by empathy expanding from the personal sphere (partner, family, friendship) to the business arena (emotional intelligence, management, customer service, HR, diversity and inclusion). What’s more, empathy appears to be the cure-all for any human interaction mismatch (and for machines too: if only they would have empathy…).
But, is this based on hard evidence or wishful thinking?
I believe that betting on empathy is unlikely to make the positive change in human relationship we are looking for.
We get empathy wrong
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines empathy as (a) 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, (b) the imaginative projection of a subjective state into an object so that the object appears to be infused with it.
Confused? Let’s try the Cambridge English Dictionary
Empathy is the ability to share someone else’s feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in that person’s situation
From those definitions, empathy appears to be a rather mystical skill, very close to telepathy. Actually, empathy is an extremely complex topic which definition has been the subject of extensive debate in philosophy and psychology. Moreover, as the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy points out, we tend to confuse empathy with other different experiences such as
- Emotional contagion: This is when you experience a feeling as consequence of your interaction with others. Example: you feel sad, but because you join a meeting where everybody is cheerful, your start smiling.
- Sympathy: It consist of ”feeling sorrow or concern for the distressed or needy other” [source]. Example: When Danny Meyer, founder of the successful Shake Shack, Gramercy Tavern, and Union Square Café, was asked for the personal characteristics they hire for when they look for culture fit, he answered that “they were highly empathetic people. They were people who cared how other people felt.” [source]. Actually, unknowingly they were hiring highly sympathetic people instead!
- Personal Distress: “Personal distress in the context of empathy research is understood as a reactive emotion in response to the perception/recognition of another’s negative emotion or situation. […]Yet, in contrast to sympathy, primarily self-oriented.” [source]. Example: Your colleague evokes an accident he was involved in. Whilst listening to him, you feel queasy at hearing the details.
Empathy has dark side
We associate empathy with compassion and justice; however, it doesn’t always result in fairer outcomes.
Empathy is susceptible to bias. We tend to empathize more with people that we identify within our in-group whilst we experience more counter-empathy (“feeling of pleasure at the misfortune of another”) for out-group members. For instance, we give higher priority for receiving medical treatment to persons with whom one has actually sympathized [source].
We hijack others’ experiences. In an effort to empathize, our minds strive to retrieve personal experiences that relate to those of our interlocutors, even if they are not objectively connected. Whilst this effort makes us feel good and reassured, often leads to frustration for other side.
For example, this year I attended a conference aimed to women working in technology. One of the presenters – white, male, and an executive of a multi-billion revenue company – started his talk with a very well-known tactic: tell a personal story that would hopefully connect him with the audience. He shared that talking in public was very stressful for him and made the analogy to the experience of women in tech as an out-group. This analogy not only failed to resonate with me and other attendees I met, but it actually backfired. It made him appear as a person with little awareness of (a) the systemic biases endured by women in tech, and (b) the intersectional aspects that may affect very differently the collective self-identified as women.
We miss key information. Once our minds believe we have a good proxy for somebody else’s emotion or experience, we use it as baseline and usually avoid validating it. Most of us are familiar with being asked to share details about an unpleasant situation (e.g. being ill, losing a close relative, missing a promotion) to be cut off after one sentence by our interlocutor with a “I know exactly what you mean”, followed by a vivid account of their own experience.
Empathy is difficult to measure
There are several tests to measure empathy; however, their effectiveness has been challenged. First, the questions struggle to isolate empathy from experiences such as sympathy or emotional contagion. Second, they rely on self-reports of empathy and, unfortunately, there is little evidence that self-reported empathy correlates with empathy for others’ experiences.
In summary, empathy is difficult to isolate, it may not necessarily correlate with fairness, and it’s difficult to measure. Should we pivot or persevere?
Curiosity as a game changer
I invite you to have a look at a rather unappreciated skill: curiosity. Unfortunately, somehow we tend to associate it with words with negative connotation such as gossip and intrusion, but it’s actually very connected to a growth mindset. As per the Merriam-Webster Dictionary
Curiosity is the desire to know
(a) inquisitive interest in others’ concerns
(b) interest leading to inquiry
or as the Cambridge English Dictionary defines it, “an eager wish to know or learn about something”.
Unlike empathy, curiosity is something that doesn’t appear to require superpowers, rather relies on our willingness to be interested in learning more.
How does curiosity work in practice?
Looking back at my professional career, I can appreciate how much curiosity has helped me:
As customer success expert: Something that was counter-intuitive for me when I moved from leading contract research to head of customer service was that experienced support representatives would rave about their good fortune to have a job that kept evolving every year. From the outside, customer support looked very much like the movie Groundhog Day, what was I missing?
I had my epiphany when I realized that the same technical problem is indeed very different when you take the time to understand the context: the users’ background, their work environment, and their needs and goals. What’s more, as I mentioned in a previous article, the willingness of learning and delving into those differences is actually one of the foundations of delivering an excellent customer experience.
As a manager: Years ago, I was asked to step in as interim manager at a very short notice. I didn’t have the benefit to connect with the team’s previous manager or to have access to their assessments or development plan. My first impulse was to try to play the empathy/sympathy card and fully rely on my experience as a manager and as a customer service expert.
Instead, I decided to meet with each of my new reports and ask them: Do you have all you need to perform your work? If not, what do you need to be successful this year?
To my surprise, rather than contempt for my lack of awareness about their individual needs, I got thoughtful feedback about what could be improved both at team and individual level. Moreover, some of them manifested that nobody ever had asked them what they needed to their job!
As a diversity and inclusion advocate: When I started my engineering studies at the university, my circle of friends was mainly constituted by people studying STEM careers at the most reputed university in Venezuela at the time. In that context, my experience was that women in scientific and engineering careers would inevitably confront bias and that the only way forward was to endlessly persist to make our mark in a very male dominated work environment and be role models for future generations. When my younger self would meet women that had decided to decline a promotion or simply not strive to “Lean In”, I would readily assume that either the person was not committed enough to their career or that they may have been forced out against their will.
Fortunately, along the way I’ve met a lot of women with a STEM background that have shared with me the reasons that have shaped some of their key professional decisions. Should I haven’t started asking more – an assuming less – I would have remained with a partial understanding of what is to be a woman working on science and engineering today.
Empathy vs Curiosity head-on
Not yet convinced? Look at curiosity in action
Discussion with a customer frustrated with a defective product
- Empathy: Apologize profusely and reassure the customer that we understand why they are frustrated and promise them that it will be fixed in the future. Hope the customer will be so impressed by our excuses that won’t dare to ask again.
- Curiosity: Prompt the customer for details: How much does the issue impact their work? What is their timeline for resolution? What is their feedback about possible workarounds?
1:1 with employee returning to work after maternity leave
- Empathy: She needs more time for her family. Reassure her that in her new position she won’t have to travel and have little responsibility.
- Curiosity: Let’s have a conversation about her career, challenges, and aspirations.
Hiring interview with an employee with a disability
- Empathy: Read a couple of articles about common accommodations at work for people with disabilities. Don’t upset the employee with questions. Reassure the person HR has all covered.
- Curiosity: Share with the employee the accommodations available in the company. Then, ask the employee what do they need to thrive in this job and how manager, team, and organization can support them.
I believe curiosity is the path to happier customers and colleagues. What about you? Are you team empathy or team curiosity?
Post-publication note: One reader prompted me to reflect further on the comparison between empathy, curiosity, and compassion and their ability to inspire action. You can read my reply here.
This article was originally published on LinkedIn.