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The Power of Empathy

health & vitality mind & meaning Aug 04, 2022

By nature, humans are emotional beings. Our emotions can shape our relationships, drive our decisions, and impact results in the workplace.

Therefore, being able to manage our own emotions effectively and tune into the emotional needs of others are valuable skills across multiple areas of life—yet many people are so focused on avoiding emotions that are perceived as negative that they cannot take advantage of the unique gifts that each emotion presents. 

As an award-winning author, social science researcher, workplace consultant, empathy pioneer, and the founder and CEO of Emotion Dynamics Incorporated, Karla McLaren has an in-depth understanding of the power of emotional intelligence and empathy. Karla discusses these topics in Episode 103 of The MINDSet Game® podcast, as well as the role of emotions in organizations. 


What is empathy?

While many people mistakenly think of empathy as simply being kind or compassionate to others, Karla defines it as “a social and emotional skill that helps you feel and understand the emotions, circumstances, intentions, thoughts, and needs of others, enabling you to offer sensitive, perceptive, and appropriate communication and support.” You may be in an empathic state when you are watching others, flowing with them, and understanding and meeting their needs—which may include doing nothing. While some people are naturally empathic, Karla believes it’s a skill that everyone can cultivate. 


What is the difference between sympathy, empathy, and compassion? 

Karla describes sympathy as the state when you feel for someone, whereas empathy is when you feel with them. While compassion is a component of empathy, it is far less personal—it’s possible to feel compassion for someone to whom you have no connection or true understanding of their needs or what they are feeling. 

One of the pitfalls that many people encounter when trying to be more empathic is that it can be scary to feel painful emotions along with someone. Karla says that in these situations, it’s important to be empathic with yourself and recognize when you might not have the capacity to be empathic with someone else in a particular moment. In addition, learning how to describe different emotional states and intensities in detail—for example, distinguishing between being frustrated and being enraged—can help you become more in tune with your own emotions and those of others, thereby leading to higher empathy.


How can you shift emotions that feel unpleasant?

Karla believes it can be harmful to view emotions as positive or negative, as it may cause us to avoid the latter while embracing the former—even when it might not be appropriate to do so. Instead, she says it’s important to understand the job of each emotion. For instance, when feeling anxious, most people will try to calm down. Yet anxiety can play a powerful role in helping you accomplish what you need to do and plan for the future, so it may be more beneficial to acknowledge the function it is serving rather than just pushing it away. 


How can organizations harness the power of emotions? 

Since we are emotional beings, Karla says that it’s impossible for people to leave their emotions out of the workplace, as some organizations seem to prefer. Instead, leaders need to recognize that each emotion carries an important purpose and gift. Additionally, organizations should consider their social structures—while most are hierarchical, people tend to work best in more egalitarian settings. Another problem with hierarchies is that the emotional rules for people at the top are often very different than for those at the “bottom,” which can lead to an emotionally destructive, low-empathy environment. 

Aside from reconsidering their structures, organizations can create more emotionally supportive workplaces by simply paying attention to the comfort of their employees. For instance, they may design break rooms to include space where employees can truly relax and comfortably tend to their physical, mental, and emotional well-being. 

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