Serious Soft Skills


Podcast 9: How Empathy Builds Trust, Teams

Hosts Dr. Tobin Porterfield and Bob Graham discuss empathy, a soft skill that everyone can benefit from, but it's a soft skill that is poorly understood and often overlooked. 
Graham ‘0:24': Welcome to Episode 9 of Serious Soft Skills. I'm Bob Graham and with me as always, at least so far, is Dr. Tobin Porterfield. We each teach college; we collaborate on researching soft skills, and we both have used and seen others employ soft skills over the course of our long and illustrious careers, not that long and not that illustrious. We think our experience and expertise give us a unique lens for looking at soft skills. We're going to show you that when we talk in the next few moments about empathy.
What Is Empathy?
Graham ‘0:52': But before we talk about empathy, we need to define it. Empathy is defined as the ability to experience and relate to the thoughts, emotions and experiences of others. Now, let's compare it with sympathy, because we often confuse those two. Sympathy is being able to understand and support others with compassion and sensitivity. So sympathy is understanding, whereas empathy is being able to experience and relate to the thoughts, emotions and experiences of others. Just in those two definitions we see that empathy is deeper than sympathy. Sympathy is a lower threshold of activity that's going on. Can you go a bit deeper for us, Toby?
Dr. Tobin Porterfield ‘1:41': This is one of those topics where we are going to have some feedback from you out there. We will hear about different experiences. I do struggle with the sympathy side. We do want to express that, but it often becomes just a polite response. “I'm sorry to hear that.” It can often be so superficial. When we talk about empathy, we're really talking about a depth of, you used the word understanding, a depth of appreciation, a depth of really walking a mile in another man's shoes. You really get it. You get why someone is frustrated. I am sorry you are frustrated and I really get it. And here's what we can do about it.
The impact that empathy can have on an organization is that depth of relationship and the critical role of empathy in truly developing and maintaining relationships.
Empathy Is About Sharing
Graham ‘2:44′: It's a shared experience. So if I talk about a situation that was difficult for me. For instance, my father died two years ago. I was talking to someone who had just had his father die and we were able to talk in a way that wasn't just superficial. “Oh, I'm so sorry.” We started talking about how you hear your father's voice at various times of the day. You're in the club who lost their fathers, too. You are nodding with me. You know what that's like. You could be empathetic in that case. Until my father died, I thought when friends' parents died, I thought it was just terrible. It's deeper now. You talk about that shared experience. With this person, we had a bond that is really deep that was built over that one, 90-second discussion about hearing the voice of your father even though he is gone.
Porterfield ‘3:47': Can you find that thing? Think about it in a work situation. We aren't usually talking about those types of tings. But that's what's going on underneath the layers of a work situation. There are family pressures and experience that people bring with them into the workplace and empathy allows us in a careful way to engage in those.
When there is a shared experience, that certainly makes empathy maybe a little easier. If I haven't had that same experience, then it's incumbent on me to use good listening skills and to ask questions and help me understand how that feels.

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