EMPATHY – What it is, its power and 5 tips to cultivate it


Although I aspired to be a lawyer from a very young age there have been many occasions over the last decade when I have reflected upon exactly what it was that drew me to decide to work with people who are experiencing relationship breakdown. I have always enjoyed helping others and have been intrigued by people and their relationships and what makes them tick. As people call on lawyers because they have problems that they want help to solve it seemed like an ideal fit for me all those years ago.

After over a decade doing the work I do (and still having a keen interest in psychology, people and what makes them tick), this time last year I decided to further explore what my strengths were. As part of this journey I took the Gallup Strengths Finder survey, which identifies our top five strengths. As a result, I learned that empathy was at the top of the list of strengths. Although this was not a surprise to me or those closest to me, despite the work I do, it was not a skill that I had ever focused on articulating as a strength professionally.

Why? Because typically, lawyers are trained to focus on facts rather than on feelings. I was unconsciously implementing my empathetic skills on a daily basis working with people experiencing relationship breakdown and their families, with much success. Despite this I found that within my profession there is a tendency not to openly recognise these absolutely essential complimentary skills.

There needs to be a shift in thinking because whilst a lawyer may possess a great level of legal knowledge (which is absolutely essential to their work) when coupled with empathy and emotional intelligence, it creates the ideal to be successful in the art of helping others. If empathy is lacking, there is a risk of not seeing the value in what the person they are assisting is saying – the value in really listening. There is a risk of wrongly assuming, arrogantly or ignorantly, a position of believing you know the answers before all of the information is on the table.

So for the past year I have leaned towards, rather than away from embracing my skills in empathy and sharing why I think these skills are just as important as the legal knowledge that I have worked so hard to attain. Both must go hand in hand.

So what is empathy? A definition of empathy which I think best encapsulates its meaning is that of Author of the book, Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman: –

“Empathy is awareness of others’ feelings, needs and concerns”.

At a deeper level, empathy is about defining, understanding, and reacting to the concerns and needs that underlie others’ emotional responses and reactions. While people commonly mistake empathy for sympathy, empathy goes far beyond sympathy, which might be considered ‘feeling for’ someone.

And there are different types of empathy. Psychologists have identified three types of empathy:-

  1. Cognitive empathy – understanding someone’s thoughts and emotions, in a very rational, rather than emotional sense.
  1. Emotional empathy – ‘catching’ someone else’s feelings, so that you literally feel them too.
  1. Compassionate empathy – understanding someone’s feelings, and taking appropriate action to help.

But not all types of empathy are helpful.

In my work it is essential that I am able to step back from the situation of the person I am assisting in a way they cannot, in order to provide them with a critical eye and help them.

This is why compassionate empathy is most appropriate both in life and when working with those experiencing a relationship breakdown. It allows you to understand someone’s feelings but at the same time remain in control of one’s own emotions. This is essential to be able to apply reason to the situation, make better decisions and provide appropriate support as a trusted advisor.

The power of empathy

In life empathy is a key ingredient of successful relationships because it helps us understand the perspectives, needs, and intentions of others. The more able we are to understand and identify with others, the better we are at resolving conflicts or disputes, which is a fundamental skill in so many professions.

Research shows that in a work setting, managers who demonstrate empathy foster a climate of support and understanding at work, which boosts employee wellbeing and, in turn, makes these workplaces more productive and cost-effective.

In law, I have seen first hand that empathy – just as much as knowledge of the law – is an essential skill. When lawyers become more focused on their clients as people, and not exclusively focused on their legal problems, their relationships with them can blossom and improve to the mutual benefit of both.

Whilst empathy comes more intuitively to some of us it is possible to focus your attention to these skills.

 Here are 5 tips to cultivate skills in empathy to benefit you in work and in life

  1. Actively listen – paraphrase, ask questions and use engaged body language.
  1. Tune into emotional cues – pay attention to non-verbal communication, picking up subtle cues almost subconsciously.
  1. Avoid judgment – aim to understand the other person’s perspective and accept it for what it is, even if you disagree with it.
  1. Be mindfully aware – of your surroundings, your behaviours and those of other people. Research suggests that practicing mindfulness helps us take the perspectives of other people yet not feel overwhelmed when we encounter their negative emotions.
  1. Look after your own wellbeing – doing so is essential to being able to lean in to rather than away from emotional cues rather than shutting yourself off, for fear of being unable to cope because of an overexposure to this without suitable support.

So I encourage you to imagine yourself walking in someone else’s shoes and leaning in to empathy rather than switching off your emotional antennae to avoid feeling overwhelmed by the feelings of others. In doing so, you will find that people will feel more comfortable speaking honestly and openly, you will be more able to understand and identify with others and it will improve your relationships in life and in work.

If you have tips to share about empathy or how to cultivate it, I would love to hear from you.


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