empathy the misunderstood skill

In the classic novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch says to his daughter Scout: “If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”1


Empathy: The Misunderstood Skill

  • When a person becomes defensive, we need a tactic or skill to diffuse the emotional response and translate the conversation to a problem-solving focus. This skill is empathy.
  • Empathy is recognizing and labeling another person’s feelings and thoughts.
  • This technique allows you to focus on facts, not on personality. Emotions are vented and dealt with so a discussion can continue constructively.
  • Empathy is not agreement; it is a reflective technique to encourage open communication. The person witnesses you listening to him or her and will perceive you are trying to respond to his or her issues.

The Differences Between Sympathy, Empathy, and Apathy

  • Sympathy: sameness of feeling; a feeling of approval of, or agreement with, an idea. “You poor thing, I know just how you feel, I had my report rejected, too.”
  • Empathy: the ability to share in another’s emotion, thoughts, or feelings. “I see that you are concerned that the interview didn’t go well.”
  • Apathy: lack of emotion or interest; unconcern or indifference. “It is ridiculous to get so upset over this.”

The Three-Step Process of Using Empathy to Influence Behavior

  • Label the emotion – You seem annoyed about…
  • Restate the content – You seem annoyed about your efforts going unnoticed.
  • Create a transition sentence – You seem annoyed about your efforts going unnoticed. What steps can you take to publicize your work?

Answer Part I – Use the following scenario to practice the three-step approach to empathy. Read the scenario, assume you are the team leader, and write an empathetic response using the three-step process.


“Why are you giving me such a hard time about being five minutes late for our team meeting? Give me a break! You know that I have responsibilities at home, and it is hard for me to get here on time. I’m 40, and I have a wife and two small sons at home. Do you have to deal with sick kids? Do you have to arrange an emergency babysitter so you can get to class on time? Do you have to fight traffic to get here after working a full day? You would be much more understanding if you weren’t just a kid with no responsibility other than going to classes.”

Answer Part II – Once you have written your response, answer the following questions:

  1. Did you find it hard to provide empathetic responses? Why or why not?
  2. What step was the most difficult?
  3. When would you most likely use the skill of empathy?
  4. Can one make a mistake when using empathy?

Source: A. Johnson & A. Kinicki, Group and Video Resource Manual: An Instructor’s Guide to an Active Classroom (New York, NY: McGraw-Hill/Irwin, 2006), pp. 155-157.

1H. Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird (Philadelphia, PA: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1960).

2Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, n.d., http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary.(Accessed July 1, 2015).

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