The word “empathy” is one that gets bandied about a lot these days, with the focus on emotional intelligence and needing to “understand” customers. Many years ago in Huthwaite when I was first embarking on analysing customer service complaint calls “empathy” was one behaviour that I wanted to look out for. It led to a certain amount of internal discussion about how we could recognise empathy in verbal behaviour, because in Huthwaite what we analyse is what is actually said.

Defining empathy

I was reminded of this debate when reading this article in the latest Harvard Business Review. What interests me here is how they define empathy. Empathy in this scenario means asking managers to imagine what customers would like. The article then goes on to state that this does not work because managers end up stating their own personal preferences, rather than really thinking through what they would want. This is because they are describing empathy as the process of trying to put yourself in another person’s shoes.

This is a view of empathy that I heard used by some of my internal colleagues when we were debating what it would sound like verbally. An “empathic” statement that would illustrate this view would sound like “If I were in your shoes I would feel like x”. My problem with this is that I fundamentally disagree that this is really what empathy is all about.

Types of empathy

If I go to the Oxford Dictionary online the definition of empathy is the ability to “understand and share the feelings of another”. Where I differ from this definition is that I see empathy as being able to understand another’s emotion but not necessarily share it. If we turn to an acknowledged guru in this area, Daniel Goleman we find that he refers to three different types of empathy. The first is cognitive empathy, which is simply knowing how another person is thinking or feeling. Second is emotional empathy, which is when you feel the same emotions as the other person, i.e. sharing them, as in the Oxford Dictionary definition above. Third in Goleman’s definition is compassionate empathy, or “empathic concern” when you feel moved to help someone.

In his blog Goleman identifies issues with cognitive empathy, in that although you may understand how somebody feels, you are not necessarily moved to help them. On the other hand if you feel emotional empathy your own feelings may get in the way, which then limits your ability to help the other person.

I realise now that my view of empathy is the cognitive sort. So when I hear a verbal behaviour like “I can see that this is upsetting you”, or “I understand your frustration” what I hear is an acknowledgement of what the other person is thinking or feeling. If I hear a verbal example of emotional empathy “and I’m upset about the situation as well” then in my complaints research I labelled this as sympathy. My definition of sympathy is that it is a statement which expresses the same feelings as felt by the other party.

From my days learning counselling theory one big take away for me is that effective counsellors are those who can hold the space for their client. They are able to recognise the distress of another, and steer into it, and yes they may soak up the emotional tears of their client, but they do not become emotional about it themselves. This for me is true empathy; you know how another person is feeling and you can respond to that, but you can also maintain your own distance from the other person. Once you start talking about your own emotions then as a counsellor you have immediately failed, because in a counselling room your attention must be solely focused on the client and the conversation is all about them, not you. The same applies to effective coaching conversations. Coaches who use the word “I” a lot are not doing an effective coaching job. “If I were you..” or “When I was in your shoes..” have no place in the coaching room, nor in the counselling room.

Huthwaite research into empathy

When I analysed the use of empathy and sympathy in complaint calls (according to my definitions) I found that empathy was used significantly more often in successfully resolved calls, whereas sympathy was not. Empathy worked because it basically signalled that the customer service adviser was actually listening to the other person and responding to their emotional needs. However the focus of a Huthwaite “empathy” statement is solely on the other person; it is about how “you feel” and never about how “I feel”.

Which brings me back to my issue with the Harvard article and research. Empathy can never take place in a vacuum. By its definition it requires another person to be present, because it is about how you interpret the emotional messages put out by that person. It’s a communication device between people. It’s not about just using your imagination because inevitably, your imagination is a product of you. That is not to say that each person’s interpretation of how another person is feeling will not be tempered by the lens through which they see the world because at the end of the day, empathy can only ever be an interpretation.

Janet Curran, Head of Thought Leadership, Huthwaite International