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What is empathy

What is Empathy? – And Why it Matters for your Business!

It’s 2020, and everyone is talking about empathy. There has been a resounding call for it in the way we do business, the way we talk to our customers, the way we talk to our families, and the way we respond to the society.

To imbibe empathy into our daily practices, it is extremely important to understand what it really means. Too often it is considered as or confused with sympathy or kindness. This has made empathy one of the most overlooked skills.

Each year businesses are losing 600 Bn dollars because of a lack of empathy at the workplace. Therefore in the fourth industrial revolution; empathy has been declared as important as artificial intelligence. Let’s take a look at what empathy means.

What is Empathy?

We all have witnessed a range of emotions in the workplace. Delighted clients show excitement, concerned partners reveal anxiety, mismatch of expectations from stakeholders reveal anger, demotivated employees reveal frustration.

While we are at the receiving end of these emotions through emails, conversations, and actions, what led to these emotions are seldom received explicitly. This is where empathy comes in.

Empathy, at its simplest, is the awareness and understanding of the feelings, needs, and desires of other people. It is to experience those feelings, needs, desires as if we were feeling it ourselves.

A great example of empathy is looking at what actors do. Actors empathize with the characters and perform scenes the way the characters would have performed it. They do not show the expressions but also reveal the ‘why’ and ‘how’ behind the character’s response.

Types of Empathy

There are three types of empathy: Emotional Empathy, Compassionate Empathy, and Cognitive Empathy.


Do you ever feel pain when you see someone being hit? Does it hurt when you see your child hurt? Some people do! And that is emotional empathy – when you literally feel what the other person is feeling. Daniel Goleman defines emotional empathy as “when you feel physically along with the other person, as though their emotions were contagious.” It is a critical skill in the healthcare industry as it can help identify treatment paths.


Scrolling down on your social feed, we often see posts of distress asking for donations. The moment we click on ‘donate’, we display compassionate empathy. In this type of empathy, we not only feel but are moved to help instantly. While in emotional empathy, we feel the pain as if it was happening to us, in compassionate empathy we also take immediate action.


Cognitive empathy is ‘knowing’ how the other person feels. It is also called perspective-taking. If you have heard the phrase about empathy, that it is to  ‘step into someone’s shoes’, it refers to cognitive empathy.

In this type of empathy, we do not necessarily engage in emotion but we understand the emotion. In cognitive empathy, you empathize with your thoughts and not with your feelings. For example, you understand why a person is upset but do not feel upset.

Cognitive empathy is a skill and is the most important type of empathy for businesses. It brings perspectives that can help a business achieve desired goals. To cite a few examples, sales can identify the underlying needs and motivations of customers and negotiate accordingly. Managers can understand how their teams are feeling and choose responses based on that.

How Does Empathy Help?

According to the author of ‘emotional intelligence’, Daniel Goleman, empathy at a deeper level is about defining, understanding, and reacting to the concerns and needs that underlie other emotional responses and reactions.

Empathy provides us with a perspective that we may not get otherwise. It plays a key role in removing bias and addressing blind spots. These perspectives help us drive more informed decisions and determine the fate of our business, relationships, and contributions.

For businesses, empathy helps keep people at the center. This in turn drives engagement, increases influence, manages change, and boosts efficiencies. Multiple pieces of research have shown that empathy helps in better sales, enhances retention, drives superior customer service, better team performance, higher revenue, and growth. Empathy is also the first step when it comes to design thinking. Whether its designing user experiences, products, or services – it all begins with empathy.

Difference Between Empathy & Sympathy

Empathy is way different from sympathy. Sympathy is to feel for someone. Whereas empathy is to feel with someone.

Here are some scenarios that can help you understand the difference.

Sympathy: Yes, it’s hard and we hear these challenges a lot from businesses like yours. Our products are built to solve many such challenges. I can share case studies with you if you’d like to know more.  
Empathy: I can understand your pain points and as a decision-maker, it must be very hard for you to solve for them. Let’s talk about how our products can best address your pain points. As you have IT-related challenges, let me also include my IT manager who may be able to add more value to the conversation.

In the first response, the salesperson addresses the pain point but quickly moves towards positioning the product and offers to send more information. However, in the second response, the salesperson connects with the customer at their level, ties the product with the pain point, and offers deeper support by bringing in another person who can address the pain points better.

A customer care executive gets a call from an angry customer

Sympathy: We are sorry you had this experience, but our systems are down, and we are trying our best.
Empathy: I understand what you are going through, and I can imagine how frustrating it is for you. Our customers have always been our priority, and this is not an experience we want to give them. I would like to know more about your key challenge, so we can prioritize a solution as we fix our systems at the backend.

In the first response, the customer care executive addresses the pain point but doesn’t offer any support because of the issues at the backend. However, in the second response, the customer care executive addresses the concern, acknowledges that they have made a mistake, and tries to find a middle path with the customer.

An employee is escalating co-worker issues to their manager

Sympathy: Yes, I know what you are saying. We are getting many escalations about the co-worker.
Empathy: I understand what you are feeling. Tell me more about the experience you are having and what you feel can be done better?

In the first response, the manager addresses the pain point and generalizes it quickly. However, in the second response, the manager addresses the employee’s emotions and tries to understand the underlying issue to make it easier for the employee.

A manager asking HR for special consideration because of personal reasons

Sympathy: Sorry to hear what you are going through. But the company policy does not let us allow for this provision.
Empathy: It must be very hard for you. We would like to lessen your burden. Let’s talk about how we can make this situation work for both of us.

In the first response, the HR acknowledges the issue but quickly ends the conversation citing company policies. However, in the second response, the HR not only addresses the issue but also tries to co-create a solution for the manager.

As you can see empathy can completely change the direction of conversations towards a win-win situation. Which is why it is a ‘skill’ that has gained utmost importance in 2020 and beyond. Investing in this skill is critical as empathy can bring businesses the much-needed competitive advantage they have been looking for and it is one trait that cannot be replicated.

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