Why Is Empathy Important And Why Is It So Hard?

Sándor Sipos
Leadership Trainer | Life & Business Coach | OD & HR Developer | Creative Thinker
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In our article about how to be empathetic we showed 4 practical steps that can be used to stay empathetic even in difficult conversations. You should:

1. Give your ego a day-off

2. Pay attention without judgement

3. Change your perspective and give yourself time to explore

4. And finally: say out loud what you understood

But despite of the fact that these are logical steps, it is far from easy to implement them in a real-life situation. Doing this requires a lot of awareness in our behavior. In order to reach this awareness, it is useful to understand the answers of these two key questions: why is empathy important and why is it so hard?

Why is empathy important in a difficult conversation?

Empathy has a good reputation in our society. We all know that it’s good to be empathetic. It’s a moral value we learn from our family and from our community. But in real-life situations we often behave in a way that is far from being empathetic. One of the reasons behind this is that people usually treat empathy as a special attitude, an exceptionally virtuous behavior.

Therefore, most of us show empathy only when we assume that we are in such a good position that we can afford to be empathetic.

For example we can be altruistic because we have no interests in the situation. We can help the other person because it’s not a big deal for us to do it. We can understand his or her feelings because as an outsider we have nothing to do with the topic. We can be generous because we don’t really want to win anything from the conversation.

But in the moment a conflict of interest occurs, our attitude can easily change. We start to defend our opinion, to argue against the other’s, and our empathy suddenly vaporizes like it has never been before.

We often consider empathy as an attitude that is relevant when we want to help others, but is a handicap when we want to negotiate and assert our interests in a difficult conversation.

The 5 benefits of being empathetic

The truth is that practicing empathy is important in any kind of interaction, from a friendly conversation to a difficult business negotiation. Actually, it’s our most important social skill ever.

There are 5 main reasons why empathy has such an importance.

1. Empathy helps to see the big picture and reach your goals

Empathic listening helps you understand the whole situation better. Not just your part, but with taking the other person’s perspective, the big picture as well. This makes you much more prepared to assert your own interests too, in a difficult conversation.

This is its strangest benefit of all: empathy helps you to pick the right arguments on your side.

By understanding the scene through the eyes of the others, you will be able to point exactly to those things that will most likely change his or her mind.

2. Empathy is the only way to reach consensus

Practicing empathy is the only sure way to reach a mutually acceptable solution. If you want to find a solution that is beneficial for both of you, you cannot skip understanding his opinion, feelings and intentions in the conversation.

This is also true if you want to be helpful. It’s a typical mistake to try to be helpful without being empathetic. This behavior leads to unwanted help and an awkward conflict between the parties. (“I just wanted to help you! You are so ungrateful!”) Without changing perspective and saying it out loud, you have no real chance to either help others or reach a consensus in a difficult conversation.

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3. Empathy feels good to others

Saying out loud what you understood about the other person’s perspective have an unbelievable, almost ‘magical’ effect on his or her attitude towards you. If somebody feels listened to, understood and cared about, this person will be much more cooperative with you even during a difficult conversation.

4. Empathy feels good to yourself

Giving is better than receiving, as the proverb says. And really, when you make an effort and understands somebody else’s emotions and perspective, you feel rewarded somehow.

It’s a kind of self-rewarding mechanism of your brain, that makes you feel good when you do something morally right.

This is the same mechanism that take effect in your body when you donate to charity.

5. Empathy helps you to be connected

Finally, there is a long-term impact on your life to practice empathy as much as you can. Even if not all your conversations will end up in a perfect consensus, even if you cannot find the right argument despite paying attention to what the other said, even if you cannot provide the best help to the other person in every situation, empathy still pays off.

Being empathetic to others always improves your relationships and always develops your social skills, no matter the actual results of the conversation. Practicing empathy regularly in difficult conversations will get you connected to the world around you, and will bring more and more meaningful personal relationships into your life.

So why is empathy important? These 5 reasons certainly answer this question. But still, after all these tangible benefits, we practice empathy much less than we would have the possibility to do so.

But why is empathy so hard?

We’re still not doing it enough. This isn’t just about the fact that we don’t know about these indisputable benefits of empathic behaviour. There are two main reasons behind the lack of empathy we show in our everyday behavior. First, we have three big misunderstandings about empathy. Second, there are three investments we should make if we want empathy to start working in a conversation.

The 3 biggest misunderstandings about empathy

Even if we consciously consider the advantages and understand why empathy is important, the 3 biggest misunderstandings about it may still prevent us to stay empathetic in difficult situations.

These are false assumptions that many of us share.

Remember them, and you will know how to be empathetic even in the most difficult conversations.

Let’s banish these assumptions!

1. Being empathetic to others does not mean agreeing with them

What? Is this right? Yes, it is.

Let’s take the example we examined closely in our article about empathic listening. Imagine that one of your colleagues rushes into your office and complains about a report he thinks that you didn’t prepare precisely. He blames you missing out some important numbers, and demands you to give him those numbers, or else he would miss an important deadline in his work.

In this example you can explore the situation from the perspective of your colleague, and come to the following understanding: “He is upset because he expected to find those numbers in the report but he didn’t. He probably thinks I’m responsible for that. He is also worried because he has a deadline he won’t be able to meet without this information.”

And that’s it. That is the situation from his perspective. Nothing less, nothing more.

Understanding somebody’s perspective does not necessarily mean agreeing with it.

This is only an acknowledgement: it seems he thinks and feels that way.

2. Being empathetic to others does not mean doing what they want

It’s possible that you understand the other and you may also agree that from his or her perspective s/he may be right. But even if you are so empathetic with the other person, you are not obliged to do as s/he pleases. You have a free will and there can be a lot of circumstances under which you may have very important reasons not to co-operate, not to help or not to accommodate. Not because you are evil, but because world is complicated.

However, it’s much easier to make the right decision about what to do in a difficult situation if you truly understand the other person’s perspective and see the consequences of your decision through their eyes. That’s what empathy is invented for.

3. Being empathetic to others does not mean this is the only thing you can do with them – for good

This is a huge barrier in front of a lot of people to allow himself or herself to be truly empathetic with others. They think that with one minute of active listening, with one piece of empathic mirroring they show weakness to the other person. And as a result, they will be obliged to remain understanding forever in the conversation, and will never have the chance to assert their interest and get what they want in the given situation.

But the reality is that your behavior is always your choice.

Spending some time to understand the other person does not prevent you to then be assertive with him or her.

But it definitely gives you the chance to decide whether it is the right time to be assertive, and also provides you with useful information on how to do it.

Empathy is not complicated. Being empathetic does not mean giving up your opinion, giving up your intentions or giving up your ego. After you have been empathetic and understood what the situation looks like through the eyes of the other person, you can let your ego come out and drive the discussion towards other directions.

To practice skills of empathy takes time

3 investments you need to make in order to practice empathy

Even if you understand all of its benefits, even if you clear up all the misunderstandings, practicing empathy takes some investments to be done. This makes being empathetic even harder in a difficult conversation, because you need to put extra effort in your behavior when you are already under pressure.

1. It takes time

Paying attention, listening to the other and not jumping to our arguments and solutions takes some time. We often believe we don’t have time in a conversation for this.

But if we keep on pushing the discussion towards a quick solution without empathic listening, it only makes it more difficult to get to any agreement.

And let’s be honest: giving an empathetic feedback to the other person about what we understood from his or her perspective often takes 30 seconds of listening and 3 seconds of saying: “I see that you are disappointed.” It’s like watching the sand draining through an hourglass: practicing empathy takes time, but it doesn’t take that much time.

2. It takes patience

It’s not only about time. When you focus on the other, when you listen to what exactly he or she is saying takes more energy and attention than just listing your arguments and repeating your opinion. Often, we don’t give this patience and attention to the other and to ourselves, making our conversations much harder than they should be. Read more on how to strenghten your listening skills in these two practical posts >>>

3. It takes proactivity

Many times we should practice empathy when the other person doesn’t show any sign of curiosity or understanding about our own opinion and perspective. Yeah, this can be frustrating. And it can definitely feel unfair. But somebody has to begin. It’s not working if both of you are waiting for the other to start being empathetic. Be a role model, show an example: stop talking, ask about the other’s opinion and listen carefully. Say out loud what you understood, and enjoy the benefits of being empathetic.

Ok, being empathetic is a really tough challenge. But still, so many of us practice empathy every once in a while, and you can be sure that it’s not rocket science. It’s more about your self-awareness in your everyday behaviour and about your definite choice than about your exceptional social skills.

And after you have read this article, hopefully you won’t ask “Why is empathy important?” or “Why is it so hard?” but instead, your true question will be: “How can I be more empathetic?” Read our article about empathic listening to learn how!


Improve your skills in 15 minutes

Reading all these things about how to be empathetic is one thing. But when it’s about practicing it in our real life situations, its not as easy as it seems.

Symblify is an innovative tool to START APPLYING all the knowledge you acquired about empathy. This app will improve how you deal with these difficult situations in life and at workplace when empathy is crucial in success.

The app is stunningly simple: just phrase your own problem regarding empathy (or other difficulties) and make a step toward its resolution in 15 minutes with the help of symbolic thinking in a way you never did before.

Learn more about Symblify – Life Made Simple iOS App Now! >>>

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  1. Arun Dongrey

    In today’s industrial world, where quick results are expected from every individual joining an organization, empathy becomes just an ‘ideal’ word. One has to get results in a very short time. If one starts empathizing with every subordinate, one comes in contact with, one can imagine the jeopardy, in case of thousands of subordinates. In earlier days, one would, in general, join an organization with a view to retire from it. Now one is after switching over for better emoluments. So, empathizing becomes not so practical.

    • Chris C. Meyer

      It sounds like you would rather not understand the other person’s point of view, taking the chance of misinterpretation, and make a quick bad decision, than to take a few moments to assure a correct decision. That sounds like an organization doomed to repeating many costly failures and a culture that inhibits subordinates from taking the effort to provide new ideas for improvements in the workplace.

      As for this article, except for the 7+ poor grammatical errors and a lack of proof reading, the concept is very relevant for today’s business environment. I have known hundreds of corporate managers and employees who should have made an effort, if not in detail, to follow the overall basic concepts presented here. Now retired and teaching Special-Ed Language Arts, there is no way I could get through to my students if I did not show empathy in their words AND actions. Also, to teach them to empathize with me and with other students.

      • Symblify

        Dear Chris,

        I’m Sándor Sipos, the author of the article. I appreciate your feedback about some grammatical errors in the post. I’m not a native English speaker, so in fact, I take it as a compliment that you didn’t notice it and thought I was an American with mediocre spelling 🙂 I take grammar very seriously when writing in Hungarian, so if you write me the grammatical errors you found I will correct them immediately.

        As for the topic about the role of empathy in today’s workplace, I totally agree with you. Too many managers are afraid of being empathetic because reason #2 and #3 presented in the article. Fortunately, I also regularly meet leaders with developed empathic skills who are not afraid to use them in their everyday communication. That doesn’t mean they are weak: they build trust among their employees and doesn’t need to be hard too many times. But the best leaders can do both, as leadership role requires firmness sometimes.

        I also understand Arun: you must have some tough experience at some not very pleasant workplace enviromnent. I know that leaving empathy makes things quicker – in the short run. But on the long run trust built by empathy always leads you further.


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