When 58 people were murdered recently in Las Vegas, people all over the world were horrified. We dove into action, donating more than $14 million (at the time this was written) to victims and their families. The outpouring of generosity has been inspirational and astounding.

The power in action? Empathy.

Empathy’s been getting a bad rep lately. What many naysayers fail to realize is that empathy is a skill with levels of proficiency. And like any skill, some people are better at it than others, and choose to use it constructively or destructively. But more on that later.

Empathy is often confused with pity, sympathy, and/or compassion, which are each reactions to the plight of others. So what is empathy exactly? Dr. Helen Reiss, Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard defines the essence of empathy as “To be seen, heard, and have our needs responded to.” In The EQ Edge: Emotional Intelligence and your Success, authors Stein and Book define empathy as “The ability to be aware of, understand, and appreciate the feelings and thoughts of others.”

Taking it a bit further – Cognitive Empathy entails identifying and understanding emotions in others (i.e. your friend is crying because her mom died and you understand why she’s distraught). Affective Empathy means that we can feel the emotions of others, or that their emotions can trigger certain feelings in us (i.e. you also feel stressed and upset to see her crying). Whether cognitive or affective – when empathy takes a hold of you, you immediately want to help. You shed your concern for yourself and spring into action – whether that action is crying with your friend or donating clothes to someone whose home just burned down.

There’s a downside to empathy too. Sometimes people simply choose to turn it off or use it for harm. Bullying is a prime example of this. Some experts say bullies use cognitive empathy to calculate exactly what to say or do to most hurt or manipulate their victims and then turning off their empathic responses toward their victims by viewing them as worthless or somehow deserving of punishment before harassing them to their own social or emotional advantage. In fact, in his book Against Empathy, Paul Bloom states that empathy is biased. “We are more prone to feel empathy for attractive people and for those who look like us or share our ethnic or national background. And empathy is narrow; it connects us to particular individuals, real or imagined, but is insensitive to numerical differences and statistical data.”

On the other hand, those with the natural gift for empathy often suffer. Like any skill, empathy can be overused and become a liability. It can also fluctuate, depending on the situation. When people are tired or stressed they may show less empathy than when they’re calm and rested. But we choose when to use it – or not. Indeed, there are times when being empathic is not the best response to a situation.

Some people may still argue that empathy is over-rated, but I’ve found that it is, in fact, crucial to success. Unfortunately, it’s often misunderstood.

  • Empathy ≠ “being nice.” Contrary to popular belief, liking a person is not a pre-requisite for empathy. You don’t have to like someone to understand that their hopes and dreams (whatever they are) are just as important to them as yours are to you. Of note: empathy and compassion are connected to 2 different areas of the brain (insula and prefrontal cortex, respectively).
  • Empathy ≠ agreeing with the other person. Just because you empathize with another person doesn’t mean that you approve of their stance. Empathy means that you’re “tuning in” and acknowledging the other person’s perspective – not passing judgment. Empathy means setting aside your true feelings in order to obtain the best result. In a heated debate, for example, when both parties listen intently and keep their emotions out of it (an incredibly difficult task!), they can have an informative and productive discussion. Unfortunately, all too often, personal feelings to get in the way of being truly empathic.
  • Empathy ≠ pointing out the silver lining. Even though you may mean well, empathic responses never begin with “At least.” When someone shares something difficult, this minimizes their pain.
  • Empathy ≠ using someone else’s experience as an excuse to share your own. There’s a difference between sympathy (“Yeah, I made that mistake once.”) and empathy (“You must have felt really upset when that happened.”). See the difference? I have to be empathic in my work. I will give you my opinion on why you need to be more empathic. I can teach this skill to you. But I am not very empathic if I make it all about me.
  • Empathy IS appropriate in the workplace. The ability to empathize with co-workers, managers, and customers is a powerful way to build alliances, generate buy-in, and even negotiate from a position of strength. For business leaders to succeed, they need to not only see and hear the activities and people around them, but to relate to the people they serve – and to convince those people to relate to them.

Sharing and understanding the feelings and viewpoints of others is, perhaps, the most basic characteristic that makes us human. The problem is that we don’t always understand the power of empathy, nor do we use it enough. Research demonstrates that we show more empathy toward those who are more similar to us than those who are not. But that doesn’t mean we need to disregard empathy altogether. It is precisely our ability to imagine the plight of others that prompts our desire to act. In leadership terms, the ability to “understand people’s motivators, hopes, and difficulties and create the right support mechanism to allow people to be as good as they can be” as the greatest correlation with profitability and productivity according to Christina Boedker, who has studied this topic extensively.

If you find the concept of empathy challenging (or too “touchy-feely”), you’re not alone. Please note: it’s ok not to demonstrate empathy all the time. But if you want to be a better leader, have more respect from your team, and be more productive and efficient, it’s crucial to compromise and meet people where they are. Yes, it may be uncomfortable and frustrating, especially if you believe you have a better solution or if your position makes more sense.

So what’s the trick to being empathic? It’s actually quite simple: learn to listen to, understand, respect, and implement another’s viewpoint instead of forcing your own.