What is Empathy?

I was recently asked ‘What is empathy?’ and ‘How might empathy at work impact business and business communication?’ They are great questions so I thought I would explore them here with you.

Empathy is the ability to ‘imagine’ what it would be like to experience what another person is experiencing. Empathic people are intuitive and often sense the unspoken needs, emotions or tensions of people. That said, it doesn’t mean empathic people agree with what they are sensing.Best Jobs For Empathetic People.

Empathic people often have terrific people skills and enjoy working with and helping people. In these cases an empathetic person becomes a knight in shining armour – coming to the rescue.

While empathy is a valuable business communication (or parenting), asset – it can also be a business challenge. It’s important for employees to always realize it’s important to care for the integrity of the business (brand, quality and reputation), while they support its customers / suppliers / employees. Therefore the empathic employee must look for the immediate value as well as the long-term value of all sides of every relationship.

Empathy Isn’t A Weakness

Empathy is sometimes seen as a weakness – an opportunity to take advantage of the caring person or company. While the manipulation of anyone is possible, there’s no good reason to isolate empathy as a character weakness.

The reality is that many great leaders have great empathic skills. Empathy is an asset because it allows great leaders to accurately motivate staff to perform in a way that satisfies both company and individual (staff and leader), objectives.

After reading Steve Jobs biography I expect he was quite empathetic (he always seemed to know what someones wants / needs were). But Steve Jobs had virtually no compassion for people so was often hard on those around him (family being a wavering exception). On the flip side, Steve seems to have had much compassion for the products he was involved in building and the customers (as a mass market), he was ‘helping’.

Compassion And Other Closely Related Character Traits

Many strong, empathic people are aware of the symbiotic relationship between other related character traits. For example, important to empathy are core competency (a person’s ability to do their job), values and job satisfaction.

Compassion (or caring), is also important because compassion can motivate the empathic person to take action and to use their people skills. A person who says “I see” or “Tell me more about that” is demonstrating they care for what the other person is feeling, knowing and / or experiencing. If the other person doesn’t feel sincerity it’s likely they will not be as open as they could or would like to be.

Empathy Example 1.

Bob is a carpenter who is proud of the decks he builds and personally designs them to meet the needs of his clients. His empathy and compassion help him focus on things competitors overlook or don’t care about (for example making sure clients can’t trip when entering the house from their deck).

Bob has decided to get a part-time job and finds one at a hardware store; the fit seems complementary. During his shift there is a constant flow of homeowners who ask questions related to building their own decks. When Bob gives the customers advise they often ask for short cuts.

It doesn’t take long before his boss notices Bob is visibly frustrated and raises this as a customer service issue.

Bob is still an empathic person but he is also proud of his ability (core competency), and his finished product. The challenge is that because many customers are looking for short cuts he feels he and his profession are not being respected.

Certainly some changes need to be made if Bob is to remain a valuable employee – and lets face it – he has great value. There are many possible solutions… for example Bob may be better suited to be a special support representative for other contractors or to give demonstration classes.

Empathy Example 2.

Mrs. Smith calls your Customer Service Hotline after receiving a book she ordered online for her husband as a birthday gift. She realizes she mistakenly ordered the wrong issue but your company is now sold-out of the issue she needs.

Possible Non-Empathy Solution; Customer Service Representative Speaking:

“That’s unfortunate Mrs. Smith. We are sold-out of that issue and not expecting stock for 1 month.

Please return the book you did order and I will see you get a full credit. You can re-order the book you want in a month.”

Possible Empathic Solution; Customer Service Representative Speaking:

”That’s unfortunate Mrs. Smith. We are sold-out of that issue and not expecting stock for 1 month.

May I suggest a book from the author XYZ – I see that people who have been reading ABC have quite enjoyed this new author. I can have XYZ’s best selling book to you in two days and it might give your husband a new favourite author. We can also pre-order the volume you wanted which means your husband will have another surprise in a month.

Please return the book you did order and I will see you get a full credit.”

What happened here was that the book wasn’t the problem. The problem was she didn’t have a birthday gift for her husband… and that she had made a mistake. But being empathetic and having compassion for Mrs. Smiths situation enabled you to resolve her problem, secure an additional sale and likely – create a customer for life that will positively tell other people about your brand and company.


By using empathy and knowing how to be compassionate within your business communication you can often quickly get to what happened and explore why. Customer service, customer retention and employee job satisfaction will also soar. You may find that ‘the situation’ is often just a symptom of another business issue… so if we can work with the customer to uncover the other issue we can often find a better solution to a much different problem… easily.

What Are Good Careers For Empathic People?

  • Customer Service Professional
  • Physical therapist
  • Counselor
  • Psychologist
  • Teacher / Professor

Happy communicating.

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About Bruce Mayhew
Bruce Mayhew is a Leadership Coach, Keynote Speaker and Corporate Trainer who builds strong client and co-worker relationships that give clients a competitive advantage. Our training and development programs include: ■Generational Differences ■Effective Business Email Writing ■Email Etiquette ■Phone Etiquette ■Behaviour Event Interviewing (BEI) ■Mindfulness ■Using Linkedin to Build Client Relationships ■Objective Setting Made Easy

4 Responses to What is Empathy?

  1. Pingback: Empath « Earthpages.ca

  2. Pingback: Customer Service / Customer Care / Best Practices « Bruce Mayhew Blog: Business Communication

  3. Pingback: 7 Habits Of Highly Effective People: Habit 1 | Bruce Mayhew Blog: Business Communication

  4. Pingback: Discover how to show empathy in writing and why it’s important. | Search Optimization Blog

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