Can you learn empathy?

Photo of scrabble tiles spelling "LEARN"Some of the foremost leaders in business and science believe in the importance of empathy in the workplace – and in the world.

“People will try to convince you that you should keep empathy out of your career.  Don’t accept this false premise.”
~ Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, Inc.

“The reason why I use the word ‘empathy’ is because the business we are in is to meet the unmet, unarticulated needs of customers. That’s what innovation is all about. And there is no way you’re going to do that without having empathy and curiosity.”
~ Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft

“Imagine how different the world would be if, in fact, that were ‘reading, writing, arithmetic, empathy.’”
~ Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist and Frederick P. Rose Director of the Hayden Planetarium

Despite what these eminent leaders say, there are a lot of people who believe that empathy has no place in the office.

There are also a lot of people who believe empathy is an innate personality trait: you either have it, or you don’t.

Both beliefs are wrong.

Empathy is a crucial skill in dealing with employees and with customers – and skills, by definition, are things you can learn.

When you read this next quote, I encourage you to read “customer service and employee engagement” in the first line, and “customers and employees” in the following sentences.

Empathy is a core skill in customer service.

Customers often experience negative emotions. When that happens, the rational part of our brain cedes control and can’t function properly. Everything stops until those emotions cool down.

Empathy is the magic that can take angry customers out of the red.
~ Jeff Toister, Toister Performance Solutions

And while Alan Alda may be less well known for his work in communication than as an actor, he’s having tremendous success teaching empathy and communication to scientists and medical professionals through the Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook, as he comments in this interview excerpt.

“What I found, and this is really interesting, [is] that you can get better at empathy. There are people that I have interviewed, who teach empathy, and one might think that one is born with a certain amount of it and that is going to be it. And that turns out not to be true.”
~ Alan Alda, Alda Center Visiting Professor, 7-time Emmy award-winning actor, and podcaster

Yes, some people have a natural talent for empathy, just as some people have a natural talent for logic, speaking, or writing – or for any of a myriad capabilities that are also learnable.

I don’t recommend bringing the same level of empathy into the office as you’d show to a struggling friend or family member. But I strongly recommend taking the time and making the effort to understand your employees and customers well enough to display appropriate professional empathy.

It’s also worth noting that your skill at empathy can make – or break – a negotiation, and can be the difference between escalation or transformation in conflict.

Here’s a quick, fun experiment you can easily conduct – and deepen your own skill at empathy.

And if you’re interested in digging deeper, here are all the posts I’ve written (so far!) on the topic of professional empathy.