Empathy as a Motivation


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Empathy is rarely seen as a motivation and yet it’s at its most effective when held that way – a little more of that in a moment.

Organisations are fond of using terms like empathy (others include Customer Experience, Performance, Engagement etc.,) but they often remain buzz words or the latest mantra that everyone ‘ought to’ be incorporating but end up paying lip service.

When Empathy Isn’t Seen as a Motivation

It’s not uncommon to be asked into organisations to help improve the lack of empathy affecting customer service, complaints, customer attrition and sales and then we ask the question, “How empathic are you to each other”?

Often the room falls silent, with a fair sprinkling of raised eyebrows.

With a bit more investigation we find that empathy is being used sporadically.

  • By some leaders and managers but not others
  • By some staff to customers but not others
  • To some departments and individuals but not to others
  • To those people that are liked or are deemed deserving of empathy (as opposed to those who are not liked and don’t deserve it)
  • If we decide we have time for empathy
  • If we decide we won’t be taken advantage of by using it

The last two are especially interesting as these are clearly run by a conscious motivation to NOT utilise empathy.

Empathy Definition There are lots of definitions. The simplest being: Empathy is the ability to be aware of someone else’s feelings and understand their needs.

Taking this one step further consider another definition we use, forged by the research of two world prominent psychologists that specialise in compassion and empathy respectively (Prof Paul Gilbert Derby University) and Simon Baron-Cohen (Psychologist and Fellow Cambridge University)

 Empathy is about spontaneously and naturally tuning into the other person’s feelings (whatever these might be) in an effort to acknowledge and help alleviate their emotional suffering

If we focus on this definition several key parts present themselves

  1. Naturally tuning into the other person’s feelings: In other words consciously listening out for the feelings making up the reality of the other person. Even if – and especially when – our reality is different.
  2. In an effort to acknowledge: A conscious intention to acknowledge the other persons feelings so they know we are aware of the feelings they are suffering. Even when we might not have been in that situation our self or judge that we would handle the same situation differently. And so avoiding the judgment in our head of, “I wouldn’t react that way”.
  3. In an effort to…alleviate their distress: Another conscious intention to use our language to help the person healthily dissolve their feelings – not as an act of overcoming their problem – but purely by acknowledging the emotional distress they settle and become more resourceful.

Once we breakdown the components of empathy we see the motivation that is naturally present. In which we actively seek to tune into the other persons feelings and through our conscious choice of language acknowledge the emotional challenges they are going through.

Its only by helping people move past their emotional challenges – in which they don’t remain ‘stuck’ or repeating a cycle that isn’t useful – that they move on towards new enriching outcomes. Something often misunderstood by those that devalue the power of empathy.

Empathy is not about

  • Being nice
  • People pleasing
  • Getting lost in another persons feelings
  • ‘Fixing’ by talking about quick solutions

Empathy as a Motivation and Social Competence

It’s a motivation because all human beings have to develop social competence to thrive and survive. We must learn to connect with other human beings for collaboration, safety, sharing finding food and resources, our life partners and bonding with our children. Empathy is a tool of social competence driven by a motivation to achieve these things. E.g.

  • We are more likely to be successful finding a life partner if we are empathic.
  • We are more likely to overcome a challenge when we need the help of others if we are empathic.

Empathy is a competency that can support many different motives and is therefore something we can consciously choose for healthy and enriching outcomes.

Business Benefits

Empathy works because its emotional intelligence in action. We know it works in business through examples such as the ones below

The business benefits of empathy include improved results within

  • Sales
  • Recruiting new staff and reducing costly dropout
  • Delivering higher profits
  • Productivity – As traits of high performers

For more details on these examples click here

If you would like more on how your organisation can develop empathy as a motivation for greater success, contact me at glenn@futurevisiontraining.co.uk

  • Quote-background

    It’s not uncommon to be asked into organisations to help improve the lack of empathy affecting customer service, complaints, customer attrition and sales and then we ask the question, “How empathic are you to each other”?

    Glenn Bracey,
    Future Vision Training Ltd,
    12th December 2016


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