The Importance of Empathy
In The Business of Happiness, Ted Leonsis wrote about how empathy for others had such a positive impact on his life and led to many meaningful relationships and activities that helped him achieve more happiness and success. I couldn't agree more, and I find myself recognizing many situations where empathy has been and will be important.
Empathy at Work
Empathy is really important at work, no matter what your job is. Unless you're trapped in a chemistry lab by yourself (I've been watching a lot of Breaking Bad), you'll always interact with teammates and colleagues to some extent and will need to understand how they feel, how they do their jobs, and what they need to be successful, even if you don't agree with everything they say or do. Empathy is especially important for jobs that interface with customers, such as sales, service, and marketing.
When I worked for the Capitals, I was kind of the go-to revenue marketer, primarily because I led our database and email marketing efforts. Email was the most effective channel to drive revenue, and boy, did we send a lot of emails. This is a fine line that every email marketer walks - because email is so effective in driving revenue, when sales are slow, the Sales department always wants to send more email. But the marketer empathetic to the needs and wants of his or her customers understands that they dread when their inboxes are clogged with sales emails. So there were many instances when I refused to send more email, even when ticket sales levels for certain games were subpar; consequently, the Sales department and I had some rifts.
Looking back, I could have been more empathetic to the Sales department and approached the situation differently. If I had put myself in their shoes, I would have understood that they had a ticket sales goal to reach for those particular games and they would look bad if they didn't hit that number. Many times I did suggest alternate channels to reach customers, such as social media and text messaging, but not before we got into arguing matches. A higher level of empathy on my part could have made these situations go much more smoothly.
You can also read my past blog post about the role that empathy played in my Startup Weekend NEXT experience.
Empathy in Personal Relationships
Having a high level of empathy for your friends, family, and significant other allows your relationships to be that much stronger.
I must admit that throughout the time that my fiancee and I have been together, I haven't always been empathetic of her, and a few times that almost cost us our relationship. There were instances right after Vicky moved to Washington, DC, where I was a really selfish jerk and didn't understand how some of the things that I did or didn't do made her feel. I'll spare you the gory details but I do think that I've become much better at understanding her situation and how she sees things. Obviously this has worked, because she still keeps me around!
Trust me, the saying "A happy wife (or fiancee or girlfriend) is a happy life" is totally true!
Empathy for Those Less Fortunate
I think many times when people see others who are less fortunate, sympathy (recognizing people's hardships and providing comfort) is confused with empathy. In my mind, when empathy is the key driver of giving, that charity is much more impactful.
I don't do enough charity work right now, but when I lived in Atlanta a while ago, I was really active with Hands On Atlanta and helped clean up local playgrounds and schools. The desire to help came from my upbringing as a child. By no means were we struggling, but when I was growing up in Queens and Brooklyn as a kid, my family didn't have that much money (though they did achieve a higher level of income later in my childhood). Thus I attended public schools in New York, frequently hung out at dirty playgrounds, and played sports in the streets. Because I went through the same things as those children in Atlanta, I dedicated a lot of my time and energy to providing better playgrounds and schoolyards for them. I believe my empathy for their situation made me work harder, devote more time, and show more passion for that cause.
As you can see, empathy is really important in all aspects of life. I believe it has helped my life and career, and if it helped one of the most successful businessmen of our time become happier and more successful, think about what increasing your level of empathy can do for you.