What is Empathy Really?

The dictionary defines empathy quite simply:

It’s the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.”

And for most of us, this simple sentence describes one of life’s greatest challenges. We come at everything from our point of view. Our style combined with our backgrounds and experiences drive how we see things.

A couple of weeks ago, I attended a retreat for Vistage chairs with 10+ years. We call it Keepers of the Flame. It’s a place for reflection, learning and sharing. The retreat began with a speaker from a local theatre group. His talk was about empathy. He gave us a peek into the life of an actor and drew a parallel between acting and leadership. From his perspective, what defines a successful actor is their ability to empathize with their character. To really get inside and understand their story.

Actors follow these 3 guides to becoming their character:

  • What if I were in their situation? What wants and fears drive who they are?
  • “What if” allows us to empathize even when we cannot sympathize.
  • And then to truly empathize, we must listen with charity.

With true empathy, our speaker said, while we may not sympathize with a murderer, we can empathize and then become the character. We begin to understand the character by asking ourselves, what wants, fears and experiences drove them to take the life of another person?

And then he challenged us, isn’t this the same with leadership? Or for that matter with all our interactions with others? If we can step outside ourselves if only for a moment, can we see the world as the person sitting across from us sees it?

Why Vistage Works

Elisa K. Spain