Practical empathy: its organisational benefits in improving productivity and decision making

Empathy. A very overused word which often lacks any real clear meaning. A lexical definition defines empathy as:

“the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also : the capacity for this” (Merriam-Webster)

Goleman talks of Cognitive, Emotional and Compassionate Empathy in more detail here and in his work on social and emotional intelligence (Goleman, 1996; Goleman, 2007).

It seems a key feature of empathy is the ability to feel and understand the feelings or emotions of both ourselves and others. A critical skill that supports good decision making. A fundamental part of military strategy is to disrupt the enemy's decision making cycle. This would be next to impossible without empathy; the ability to understand and feel the challenges of the enemy's leadership and then to predict the decisions that will flow from there. It is this ability that empathy gives us to be able to predict future behaviours based on our empathetic appreciation of ourselves and others that significantly advances the decision maker’s ability to make sound and timely decisions.

The wonderful thing about empathy is that it can be developed. Roman Krznaric discusses six ways to develop our empathy for others, these are,

1. Switch on our empathetic brains,

2. Use imaginative leaps to develop empathy,

3. Practice empathetic listening and curiosity,

4. Practice experiential empathy,