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Empathy is vital to healthy human interaction. But, why is it so important? To understand why empathy is so important, we must first understand what it is. Only then can we determine how it works. Once we see it in action, why empathy is so important becomes clear.
Have you ever heard someone laugh, and laughed automatically without knowing the joke? Or, maybe you were watching a movie and cried when the hero got dumped. Another example is moving across the country and suddenly developing an accent, as if you’ve lived there your whole life. Empathy triggered your emotions even though you weren’t the one experiencing the event.
What Is Empathy?
Automatically mimicking others, or feeling their pain as if it were your own, is known as affective empathy. You take on the other person’s affect, such as hand gestures and facial expressions. You may even viscerally feel their emotions. This type of empathy is a result of the firing of “mirror neurons.” As the name suggests, when the mirror neurons are engaged, we connect to another person’s actions or feelings, and in turn, echo the experience. Most of the time we don’t even notice.
Emotion researchers believe that the mirror neuron network is evolutionary and directly related to social behavior and the ability to connect to and accept others, despite their differences. A person’s empathy depends on their genes and the environment in which they were raised. In other words, it’s more difficult for some of us to relate to another’s experience as a result of our upbringing, or genetic predisposition.
Have you ever heard the expression “put yourself in their shoes?” Being able to identify and understand emotions coming from someone else is called cognitive empathy. Hence, we metaphorically walk in their shoes. This type of empathy is a learned skill that comes through observation. With this understanding, it is clear why empathy is so important.
Recent research has proven that affective empathy and cognitive empathy happen in different areas of the brain. Affective empathy is believed to relate to emotions and cognitive is a conscious drive. Cognitive empathy is sometimes referred to as perspective taking and is best utilized when we can refrain from judgment when we recognize emotion in others. In this way, we can experience the other person’s feelings without taking them on as our own. It’s important to be able to differentiate our feelings from the signals that we’re picking up from other people.
Is there such a thing as being too empathetic?
The short answer is yes. Too much empathy can cause a tremendous amount of pain. It becomes a problem when we experience it to the point that we take on the emotions of others and in the process lose our self-awareness. As with much of the human psyche, empathy is a spectrum. For example, people with autism have trouble picking up on emotional cues, so they often react inappropriately to emotional situations. There’s also a little-known condition called mirror-touch synesthesia that causes a person to physically and mentally experience pain and emotions they see in others as if it were their own. Most people are on the spectrum in between these two extremes.
Too much emotional empathy, without the cognitive aspect in which we are separated by conscious choice, can result in severe mental health issues. People-pleasing, codependency, and professional burnout can all be a result of empathy that’s gone too far. Healthy empathy lets us know when someone feels aggression or anger toward us. It’s a necessary tool for keeping us safe.
How does empathy differ from sympathy and compassion?
Unlike empathy, in which you feel another’s emotions, sympathy is when you have an understanding of how they feel. There’s no connection to the other person’s state of being with sympathy. You are merely a bystander, unattached by emotion.
When we feel sympathy, there may be a tendency to depreciate the feelings of others. According to Dr. Brene Brown empathy fuels connection, while sympathy drives disconnection. Because sympathy is more an expression of our own discomfort, we end up responding in a way that we believe will help the other person see the “silver lining” in their situation.
Let’s say, your friend flunked their math test, and your response is, “I’m sorry, but at least you’re good at basketball.” You are diminishing how they’re feeling about their mathematical ability. A more empathetic response might be, “I’m sorry that happened, I know how important it is to you to get better at math.”
On the other hand, compassion is when you feel sympathetic, and you want to help the person. So, when your friend flunks their math test and you offer to help them study, or you help them find a resource, you are showing compassion for them. Compassion also engages our empathy for others because instead of being a bystander, we actively engage in helping them. When we feel compassion for others, it has the physical effect of slowing down our heart rate and releasing the “bonding hormone” oxytocin.
Empathy in Action
We can use our innate ability to create strong personal bonds if we know what actions to take and understand why empathy is so important.
How can I increase my empathy?
Now that you know some of the reasons why empathy is so important, you are probably wondering how you can increase empathy in your self and the members of your team.
Self-awareness is the key ingredient to healthy empathy. Practicing mindfulness will aid in developing your empathetic skills and protect you from becoming too attached. Mindful people know how to remain present, which enables them to stay self-aware while also sharing someone else’s experience in an empathetic manner. You will feel more compassionate as mindfulness meditation quiets the part of your brain that is self-absorbed while building a natural flow of acceptance.
The use of mindfulness also helps us strengthen our emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence is the ability to manage our emotions and the emotions of others. There are three components of emotional intelligence.
Emotional awareness is being aware of the emotions you are experiencing, differentiating your feelings from the emotions other people are exhibiting, and not putting any judgment on them. The second piece is compassion for yourself, which ultimately allows you to do the same for others. The third part is all about how you react to negative feelings. Emotional intelligence requires you to acknowledge the negativity, define its source, and let it go. Mastering emotional intelligence means that you are no longer a slave to how you feel.
Why Empathy Is So Important for Good Teamwork
Now it’s time to discuss why empathy is so important when it comes to teamwork. Teams are comprised of individuals. How teammates relate to each other may make all the difference in how well they function as a unit. A great team is comprised of athletes who believe they are the best person for the team, not the best person on the team. This kind of altruism can be a challenge, considering the heavy competition it takes to make the team in the first place. Empathy can help.
Individuals who exhibit high degrees of empathy feel connected to those around them. From a team perspective, this is a necessary aspect to working together. Team members may be very different regarding race, education, and religious beliefs. Empathy can connect individuals through commonalities which helps them to develop the shared identity needed to be a team player. This is why empathy is so important for athletes a team.
Team Dysfunction Dynamics
Any organization in which people work together and develop their abilities becomes a type of family. They spend a lot of time together. Family dynamics, like team inclinations, influence how we feel when we are around each other. Personality clashes are the number one factor that causes a team to fail.
Think about what we’ve already learned about affective empathy. Team dynamics could be a real issue if everyone’s empathy is feeding off of the clash between teammates. This is another reason why empathy is so important for good teamwork.
How can we use our knowledge of empathy to promote healthy team interaction?
Empathy is essential in two areas of team development, social and motor skills. An empathetic coach can inspire their team to excel as well as build their confidence. Using a softer tone might seem ridiculous when you think about how much yelling goes on out there. However, a softer tone will help the team to take feedback without feeling beat down. A supportive tone will help them to feel positive.
Active listening builds trust because your team has your full attention. We mentioned self-awareness earlier. If individuals understand how their actions affect the overall team dynamic, it will be easier to define what work they need to do.
How to Help Your Team Function Like a Well-Oiled Machine
Some ways to build great team chemistry include exercising empathy. Cooperation is necessary to team success. Doctor Wade Gilbert advises using the CREDIT method for empathetic team-building.
Cooperative, respectful, enthusiastic
For an exercise in cooperation, have your team watch Doctor Brown’s three-minute video about empathy, then share a story about a personal struggle. After each member tells their story, their peers summarize what they heard. Hearing other’s stories and repeating back what they heard is a way to develop active listening skills, which will, in turn, raise the empathy level, and highlight the areas where the team can improve.
Empathy builds respect for others through active listening and emotional intelligence. A team with strong empathy will be able to take cues during game night, and resolve conflicts should they arise. University of Minnesota football coach PJ Fleck came up with the “row the boat” analogy, which is an excellent way to foster a team’s empathy. There are three parts to rowing a boat, the oar, the boat, and a compass. The oar is the energy an individual brings to the team dynamic. The boat is the sacrifices each is willing to make for the good of the whole. The compass gives direction to your energy and sacrifices.
Your team’s enthusiasm will increase as they develop their empathy for one another. A coach can use this skill as well to help lift the team’s spirit by providing positive reinforcements such as rewards for a job well done.
Disciplined, invested, and trustworthy
No team will function well without a good amount of discipline. The practice of mindfulness will help in this area. Doctor Gibert suggests allowing the athletes eight to ten minutes of “self-directed training” in which they decide, on their own, what they need to do to improve their game. The ones who take the task to heart will inspire the others to do the same, because of the empathy they are building together.
All this teamwork and understanding of each other will help the individual athlete become more invested in the overall good of the team. Additionally, when you’re on a losing streak, instead of hiding away and licking their wounds, they will be able to come together and support one another with compassion instead of negative emotions, which could make things much worse.
The outcome of teambuilding activities that use empathy, mindfulness techniques, and compassion is a team that is trustworthy. In the long run, you’ll be able to count on team members who have a high ratio of empathy. And if you build these skills together, there is no doubt your team will function like a well-oiled machine.
Understanding empathy and how it affects your daily life is an important factor in how we get along with and accept people. It’s essential for sports teams to work together, avoiding conflict along the way. And that, my friend, is why empathy is so important for good teamwork.