– by Alicia Ng
Empathy is frequently confused with sympathy; what sets it apart is its capacity to reach out and take action. While they are both about the ability to understand and share the feelings of others, empathy allows us to respond with sensitivity and compassion. Just as our bodies require regular exercise to stay strong and flexible, empathy is like a muscle that gets stronger with discipline and consistency. Like physical muscles that atrophy without use, empathy diminishes when neglected, so training it consistently is crucial. Practicing empathy involves active listening, engaging with discomfort, acts of kindness and self-reflection.
Firstly, listen actively with openness and curiosity, without judgment or preconceptions – pay attention to words, tone, and body language. At the same time, observe your own reactions and emotions without criticising yourself. Secondly, immerse yourself in diverse settings and engage with people from different backgrounds.
I lived in Hamburg from 2014 to 2017 and it opened my eyes to Germany’s relationship with WWII when I saw how their Nazi past was unflinchingly taught to school children to ensure history was neither denied nor forgotten, yet without assigning guilt to the future generation. I learned the importance of not referring to women as “Fraulein” or calling my boss “Fuehrer”, which meant a willingness to confront and let go of my unconscious biases (we all have them) about Germany’s role in WWII. This gave me a deeper appreciation of how repentance, resilience and acceptance created real change while broadening my understanding of human emotions and experiences that were vastly different from my own.
Thirdly, make it a point to regularly perform acts of kindness and compassion. Even small gestures such putting your phone aside when listening to a friend will go a long way towards strengthening your empathetic muscles. Lastly, reflect on your own emotions and experiences because understanding your own feelings allows you to empathise more authentically with others, as you will be able to draw from personal insights to relate to their struggles and joys.
Practicing empathy also means believing in yourself – just as you do not become a world class athlete overnight, training consistently even when you do not feel like it or when you may not notice immediate results, is hard work. However, to have faith means to trust that growth is happening regardless – just as training your body makes it stronger, training your empathy will ultimately reward you a hundredfold because the gift of connection will produce far reaching ripples beyond your expectations.
In leadership, empathy plays a vital role. Leaders who practice empathy inspire trust with their authenticity and ability to understand and support their team’s concerns and aspirations. Because empathy naturally results in better quality interactions, there will be more effective communication and smoother conflict resolution within your team, which will lead to a positive environment and more constructive outcomes.
In essence, empathy is a vital muscle that can be trained. When we practice empathy well, people feel valued and understood. It is a gift that gifts both ways: cultivating connection, understanding and collaboration with others lead to better relationships; self-compassion and reflection leads to inner growth, ultimately enriching both our personal and professional lives.