What is empathy?
The word Empathy in its current meaning was only created in the mid 19th century by the German philosopher Rudolf Hermann Lotze as a scientific translation of the German word “Einfühlung” in analogy to the word Sympathy, “Mitgefühl” in German. Going back to Ancient Greek, Sympathy συμπάθεια (sympátheia) means feeling (pátheia) with (sym). From there, empathy ἐμπάθεια (empátheia) gets the meaning feeling (pátheia) into (em).
Empathy is the capacity and willingness to perceive and understand the thoughts, emotions, motives and personality traits of others. Empathy is all about placing oneself in another’s shoes, taking someone else’s perspective.
Empathy is often categorized as:
- cognitive empathy – the perception and understanding of what someone else is feeling, or
- emotional or affective empathy – feeling oneself and sharing what another feels.
Empathy can be authentic (in accordance to own genuine values and personality) but also functional (learned as skill or competency).
In this power tool, empathy is defined as a functional skill that can be learned and trained. In a management and leadership perspective, the skill of empathy is mainly cognitive, the capacity to understand someone else’s perspective or mental state.
Brené Brown in her Shame Resilience Theory (2007) defines four attributes of empathy, referring herself to Theresa Wiseman. Being empathetic is:
- to be able to see the world as others see it, taking other's perspective;
- to be nonjudgmental, staying out of judgment;
- to understand another person’s feelings, recognizing emotion in other people;
- to communicate our understanding of that person’s feelings.
Empathy is a strength, it is about high quality connections and a strong sense of worthiness. Empathy is about giving, being with others, about accepting to be vulnerable, taking emotional risks, showing courage and honesty. Empathy is also about sincere and nonjudgmental interest and curiosity in others. But it is also a way to reduce uncertainty by understanding and knowing the unknown – what others think and feel.
What is assertiveness?
The word Assertiveness was built on the verb “to assert”, meaning to state strongly, to declare and defend one’s own opinions. The verb originates from the Latin verb “asserere” which took the late meaning of to claim, to maintain, to affirm. Assertiveness is then the quality and behavior implied in stating or declaring positively and often forcefully or aggressively a message.
Assertiveness is in fact widely recognized as a fundamental leadership skill and mode of communication. In that sense, assertiveness is about being self-assured and confident without being aggressive. Assertiveness training’s claim that being assertive in the positive sense of the word as a skill, demonstrates self-respect and a willingness to stand up and express our own thoughts and feelings. It boosts self-confidence and can improve work satisfaction. Assertiveness is linked to self-esteem and implies a high level of self-awareness. It is also about knowing personal boundaries and respecting others’ boundaries. An assertive communication style is the optimum between a passive and an aggressive style of communication.
However, assertiveness is often applied inappropriately. A recent research project by Daniel Ames and Abbie Wazlawek found that more than 50% of people perceived as under-assertive thought that they were the right level of assertiveness or even too assertive; and more than 50% of people viewed as being over-assertive thought they came across as appropriately assertive or even under assertive. Indeed, people easily forget the complexity of communication and what may sound appropriate and balanced in a specific situation may not be in an even slightly different context. Assertive persons can consequently be perceived as over-assertive, even aggressive.
In this power tool, assertiveness is defined as an overly aggressive, authoritarian style of communication. Assertiveness is recognized by bold but confident statements and behaviors, a bossy and pushy attitude. It is about persuading people with a forceful tone, without listening seriously to oppositions.
Academically studied and trainable assertiveness should be about self-awareness. Over-assertiveness may originate from a tendency toward a narcissistic self-assured self-concept. Assertive persons may be qualified as aggressive, arbitrary, arrogant, authoritarian, autocratic, bold, close-minded, confrontational, directive, disrespectful, dominating, forceful, impatient, impudent, manipulative, overconfident, rude, self-asserted, self-centered, self-righteous, severe, strict, and many more.
Besides that overly developed self-concept perspective, over-assertiveness may also originate from low self-esteem and low confidence, but also stress, shame or anger. Assertiveness may then be an expression of e.g. avoidance, discomfort, discountenance, fear, frustration, guilt, resignation, or struggle. Such assertive persons may be in reality defensive, insecure, troubled, overwhelmed, stuck or unable to face stress.
Clearly, being perceived as overly assertive translates a lack of self-awareness. Assertiveness is focused on self, on taking more than giving. An assertive behavior (wrongly understood) is an expression of egoism, where judgment takes over.
The empathy perspective
Let us go back to John and Steve. Steve is perceived as assertive, pushy, dominating. Supposing that Steve would bring empathy toward John and the current situation, what would change? Steve would express a genuine and nonjudgmental interest in what John did by now, how he sees the situation, how his feelings toward the supplier and the project are, what future steps he thinks are good to consider. Steve would inquire about the relationship between John and the supplier too. John would probably feel listened to and understood, he would see his voice considered, he could see his energy rising when talking about the project, new perspectives may even arise. Bringing empathy is indeed fostering creativity and change!
Empathy enables a higher level of connection. With humility and vulnerability, the empathetic person is offering a nonjudgmental space to share and exchange, connect. Empathy brings consideration. It is about acknowledging and respecting the views and feelings of someone else, an alter-ego, another me. Empathy is about introducing sensitivity and genuine curiosity into the communication process. Bringing empathy is also being courageous enough for discovering the unknown, what and how others perceive things. Empathy is about understanding and sharing.
Because empathy is also powerful active listening, the person receiving empathy may see his/her level of negative defensive energy decrease. By realizing sincere consideration, respect and a lack of judgment, lightness may rise and come over critical issues. With the positive energy rising, new possibilities for innovation, creativity and change are set. Empathy is a change agent. Empathy enables a change in perspective. An empathetic manager will ease though empathy the conditions for a better acceptance of his intended influencing behavior. Empathy is a strong component of effective leadership.
John’s business trip was leading him to his supplier, based in Japan. It was the first time he met the supplier’s representatives, it was the first time he was in Japan. He arrived there with a plan in his head, how the talks will be going. He knew what he had to offer and he knew what he was expecting. He expected the meetings to be similarly productive as he usually experienced meetings in similar situations back home. In a big meeting with the Japanese counterparts, John presented the project for the new products and how the supplier will contribute to its successful realization. He found people in the meetings pretty disinterested with what he was presenting. Some attendants were obviously sleeping during the hour-long meeting, what an offense – he thought.
John managed to remain focused and not judging too quickly his Japanese supplier. He decided to stay open towards them and not pushing or being aggressive. In the end, he could present his views and still thought he might have been perceived as pretty assertive.
In the evening, John was taken to a restaurant where he could meet many more colleagues. All were very polite and friendly in tone. He had a nice time talking to people with so different experiences and apparently different ways of working. He was truly interested in knowing more about their working life and told also about his own work habits, taking attention not bringing any judgment in his speech, to not offend anybody. He was listening with curiosity and tried to highlight similarities. All in all, John had an interesting business trip, but the result concerning the project seemed disappointing.