‘Empathy’ is a theme that comes up frequently these days. It is seen as one of the critical skills for design thinking (based on the recent Design Thinking Skills and Applications survey, results to be published in September). Several social learning experts have identified empathy as a key enabler (see How Empathy Affects Learning, And How To Cultivate It In Your Students by Sarah Briggs), and it is a component in leadership models (Why the Empathetic Leader Is the Best Leader by Shelley Levitt).

Design. Learning. Leadership. That is a pretty impressive list, and to it one could add collaboration, teamwork and even sales.

In TeamFit ’empathy’ is categorized as a Social Skill. Social skills are the skills we use to work together effectively. But we have been challenged by users who think Empathy is better characterized as a Foundational Skill (a skill used to develop other skills). Now this opens all sorts of questions around skill categorization management, but I don’t want to go there in this post. Instead, I want to ask:

“Is it meaningful to think of empathy as a skill?”

TeamFit has avoided the infighting that plagues HR discussions of skills and competencies by calling many different things a ‘skill’ and then using AI to develop performance models that connect skills to performance. See From Skills to Expertise to Competency via a Performance Model. But it is still worth asking “What is a skill?” and “Is ’empathy’ a skill or a character ‘trait?” The answer to this will help us understand if we can train people to show more empathy and if so how.

Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines a skill as: “the ability to do something that comes from training, experience, or practice.” This implies that a skill can be learned and that performance can improve over time.

The same dictionary defines a trait as: “a distinguishing quality (as of personal character).” Many people believe that traits are something we are born with or acquire very early in our development and that they are much more stable than skills.

There is a useful discussion of this on Do You Understand the Difference Between Skills and Traits? on the Red Letter Résumés site.

So, can we help people who are low on ’empathy’ to change?

Let’s start with an online test on empathy. I am not sure how well validated this test is, but it did get me thinking about the different aspects of empathy. Take an online test on empathy.

Learning about the concept of empathy is not likely to help people become more empathetic. This is not a ‘skill’ where explicit knowledge is all that helpful to performance.

What we can do is try to change some of our behaviors. Attitudes often follow behaviors rather than lead them, so a bit of behavioral change can go a long way.

At TeamFit we have found the following helpful.

Suspend judgement, listen and question first
Put yourself in the other person’s position, talk about the decision you would make in their situation (this is especially important when discussing clients, partners and competitors)
Allow room (and time) for people to express their emotions

In general, we encourage people to respond and not to react. A response takes into account the other person’s position. A reaction is less thoughtful and more from one’s own point of view.

What skills might support Empathy? We could not tease this out of the Skill Graph (TeamFit’s data model and the data that informs it), which is generally weak on social skills at this point (we are working on ways to change this). So instead we asked people about this. The skills people identified as supporting empathy were

  • Imagination
  • Emotional Intelligence
  • Listening and Active Listening
  • Self Awareness
  • Cross Cultural Understanding

All of these are interesting, bit the one that caught my attention was Self Awareness. Self Awareness is not currently as skill we have seen in TeamFit. It is not something that generally comes up in business conversations. But it does make sense that one cannot really empathize with other without  having some insight into ones own emotions, beliefs and decision making. There is even research showing the self awareness is the best predictor of leadership success! See All Successful Leaders Need This Quality: Self-Awareness on Forbes and How Leaders Become Self Aware in Harvard Business Review.

I am left asking myself ‘How do I increase my own self awareness?’ and ‘How do I connect self awareness to empathy?’ Will I claim self awareness as a skill on a project in TeamFit? I doubt it. But now that I am more aware of this I may well suggest it to others. There are several people I work with closely who do show a lot of self awareness and empathy in their interactions with other people. This should be recognized.