“At the end of the day people won't remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel.”
When people hear the word empathy, they often think of being kind or gracious. But empathy is much more than being nice to someone—empathy is the ability to identify with another person’s feelings. It is the ability to relate to the fundamental humanity of another person, even if that person appears to be unlike ourselves. Some terms that are the opposite of empathy include: indifference, cruelty, atrocity, and hatred. Understanding terms that are the opposite of empathy can help us identify attitudes or behaviors we wish to avoid and support our efforts to listen to others. When we listen closely to what others are saying without judgment, we can build strong relationships at work, home, and school that are based on loyalty and trust.
The ability to empathize with others is an important part of your emotional intelligence. It involves both self awareness (what’s happening with me?) and social awareness (what’s happening around me?). When you can compare and contrast answers to these two questions, you’ll be on your way to understanding more about empathy and compassion.
No expression of empathy is too trivial. When you use empathy to try to understand someone’s experiences, large or small, the results can be life changing for you and those around you. You’ll begin to see people’s potential and come to appreciate their uniqueness. Just ask Patricia Moore, world-famous industrial designer, author, and gerontologist. A gerontologist is a social scientist who studies the effect that aging has on people. Moore combines her compassion for people with her love of product design to create modern conveniences that serve the world’s elderly population. Let’s take a look at her story:
Image 1 of 2: Photo of Patricia Moore, International Industrial Designer
Moore wanted to know what it was like to be an aging member of society and part of one of America’s marginalized populations. She was driven by empathy and curiosity. For several years, Moore visited over 100 cities in the United States and Canada to gather data about the elderly including their mobility, places they lived, and society’s reaction to them (Greguska, 2020). She used her data to inform designs on a wide assortment of products, making the products inclusive and accessible to the elderly and everyone who used them. For these reasons and many more, Patricia Moore has been dubbed the Mother of Universal Design.
The products that Moore has developed over the years all have something in common: their effectiveness is rooted in empathy. Some people exhibit empathy naturally, but empathy is also a skill that can be developed. While it does take practice, being empathetic is invaluable as it helps us see the humanity in the people we work with and serve. The positive results include better personal and professional relationships, higher levels of motivation, and improved job performance. And in the case of Patricia Moore, empathy painted a much wider stroke as it brought social change to the world.
Self and Social Awareness: Why Employers Care
Empathy is a skill that can be grown and strengthened. One of the easiest ways to begin is to remind yourself that, “we’re all human.” As humans, we all experience feelings but to different extremes and in vastly different contexts. No two humans are alike. Despite our differences, we can learn more about someone’s life experiences when we stop to listen to them, and we remove our assumptions about who we believe them to be based on bias or stereotyping.
Image 2 of 2: Photo of a woman between the ages of 25 and 55 pushing a mail cart through an office and enjoying her job. There can be other people around too.
EXAMPLESasha works in the mail room for a large corporation. Her primary job is to sort a portion of the mail and hand deliver it to each employee’s cubicle. Kevin works as an accountant and enjoys being greeted by Sasha every afternoon because she’s always approachable and friendly. Interestingly, Sasha doesn’t speak a word to Kevin during her mail route. She’s not shy or detached, instead she uses sign language with Kevin because she is nonverbal. She was born with a genetic condition that affects her speech and cognitive functioning. Sasha was hired through the company’s Opportunity Plus Program which gives people with disabilities rich and meaningful employment opportunities to earn a living wage within their communities.
Answers will vary, but here’s one possible answer:
Kevin has the privilege of being bilingual, using speech and sign language to communicate his ideas. He is also neurotypical. While Sasha is terrific at her job, her abilities are significantly different than Kevin’s. The company has reduced the inequity by offering meaningful and fitting types of employment for all its job applicants, despite their differences in ability.
Through empathy and compassion, more and more companies are putting social responsibility at the forefront. When they do, it’s motivating for the people who work for them and for the communities that they serve. In today’s workplace, a growing number of job applicants are searching for companies that are guided by a social conscience just like the company Kevin and Sasha work for.
Self and social awareness is a foundational employability skill and empathy plays a vital role in it. Getting to know yourself and how you relate to others is an important first step toward success at school and in the workplace. In the next set of lessons, you’ll see how resilience and adapting to change are also necessary skills in today’s fast-paced world.
Greguska, Emma. (2020, February 27). “Solutions: Design for all.” Arizona State University; ASU Now: Access, Excellence, Impact. https://asunow.asu.edu/20200227-solutions-design-all
Wechsler, Jax. (2013) “Design Pioneer: Patricia Moore - Mother of Universal Design.” WonderWomen. http://wonderwomenglobal.com/design-pioneer-patricia-moore-mother-of-universal-design/