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Empathy: What it is and how it enhances all of the top skills of 2023


If you’ve been poking around in the comment sections of this high-impact workplace skills series, you’ll notice one theme has come up on several occasions, and that’s empathy. The ability to empathize—to really hear, understand, and feel for other people—is a core interpersonal skill that unlocks deeper capabilities and drives effectiveness when working with others.

Think about it this way:

  • You can use analytical thinking to find solutions to problems, but you can’t convince your stakeholders to act on your recommendations if you don’t consider their needs.
  • You can motivate yourself to prioritize your professional development, but in order to set a career advancement strategy, you need to understand the outcomes your boss values.
  • You can demonstrate leadership by doling out assignments to your team, but if you want to encourage everyone’s best work, you need to recognize the conditions your team needs in order to operate at their best.

So even though empathy and active listening sit in the 8th spot on the top skills of 2023 list, these skills can find a way to enhance all of them.

How to show empathy

Empathy is a step deeper than sympathy. When you express sympathy, you might acknowledge the way a person is feeling and know how you’d feel if you were in a similar situation. When you express empathy, you’re able to imagine what it feels like to be that person in that situation.

When you empathize, you understand the web of circumstances that surrounds another person and influences the way they feel. Sympathy is noticing an intern struggling to complete a project; empathy is recognizing that an intern is struggling to adapt to their first work environment and that adjustment period is making it difficult for them to navigate their tasks.

Active listening and empathy have a symbiotic relationship. Active listening is a practice of hearing, interpreting, and reflecting when communicating with someone else.

To illustrate the relationship between these two skills, let’s return to your intern:

During an introductory conversation, the intern told you that this is their first work experience, and through their body language and the questions they asked, you picked up on their nerves around finding the right contacts for the various teams they’d be working with and etiquette for reaching out.

This previous conversation informed your empathetic response when you noticed their missed deadline—this was exactly what they’d been worried might happen. Now, you go back to the intern and reflect: “How are you feeling about your project? Can I help you find appropriate points of contact?”

Now, your intern feels like you heard them and understood their blockage, and you’ve provided a path forward (that’s leadership). Empathy and active listening not only helps you feel connected to others, but can help your peers feel connected to you in return.

Practicing empathy and active listening

You likely already have empathy and active listening skills—you may notice them the most when you’re interacting with loved ones—but these skills can be difficult to tap into in different environments or situations. In order to really master these skills, it takes practice.

Here are some starting points:

Lastly, to close out this high-impact workplace skills series, we’ll offer one more recommendation: IBM’s People and Soft Skills for Professional and Personal Success Specialization. Over six courses, you’ll explore how to develop and implement what IBM calls “success skills”—all of which will look familiar to you after these last five issues.

With that, another Career Chat series comes to an end. Thank you for showing up and sharing with us. We’ll be back next week with another special issue. See you then!

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