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“Bob Burg opens the floodgates to Fort Knox.”

~ Dottie Walters, Author, Speak & Grow Rich

The Beauty of Empathy

August 31st, 2011 by Bob Burg

Not only is empathy a vitally important part of the selling process; it is also a vitally important part of the human process. This is true whether trying to understand why someone is resistant to our viewpoint or if we are simply attempting to help them through an issue or difficult time.

I believe that in any relationship — business or personal — empathy is a key differentiator between the successful and the unsuccessful. Those who have the talent and skill; both at having empathy and being able to communicate empathy are at a huge advantage over those who don’t.

Dictionary.com defines Empathy as “the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.” Being a simple fellow, I just say it is really nothing more than — as the saying goes — putting yourself in the other person’s shoes.

If we have similarities in experience, we might actually be able to really identify; to know what and/or how they are feeling.

But, what if that is not the case? Let’s face it; there are times when not only do we not know exactly how they feel…we have absolutely no idea how they feel!

Yet, we can still be empathetic. You see, empathy doesn’t necessarily mean you actually feel what the other person feels. The truth is, you might not. It does mean you communicate that you understand they are feeling … something.

When someone with true empathy listens…the other person feels truly heard. And feeling heard is what often makes the difference.

In a Facebook discussion, I suggested that I even think we can feel (or at least identify with) a similar emotion even if we don’t know exactly what/how they are feeling, and that’s what communicates to them that we care. In response, Pastor Tom Sims wrote, “there is always something inside of us, some memory of personal pain or struggle that unites us in a common humanity and enables us to relate in compassion.” WOW!

And, if that wasn’t an exquisite enough thought, Pamela McBride followed that up by saying,  “Compassion is only a heart beat away when we tap into our own struggles.”


Oh, have I ever mentioned that I have the world’s coolest friends and readers?

27 Responses to “The Beauty of Empathy”
  1. Glenn Engler said at 8:03 am on

    Bob: Love the post. Thank you. (I can’t help but hear my Mom running throughout). Makes me think about some of the best client relationships I’ve had, and how we try to train our folks to read the room and read the people. Most focus on the Rational side (the right answer, the work, etc). I love the concept of adding in the Political (who reports to whom, who’s got the money, who works with others, etc), and the Emotional (what makes them tick, what’s their family situation, hobbies, etc). Love your “empathy” push — fits well within the Rational-Political-Emotional lens…

  2. Al Smith said at 8:26 am on

    Thanks Bob. Another great post. Empathy and the power of “Just Listening”. Sometimes, not saying anything is saying the Best thing. I love the last line from a piece by Rachel Naomi Remen.

    “A loving silence often has far more power to heal and to connect than the most well intentioned words.”

    Just two words, “I’m Sorry” can mean so much.

    Thanks again Bob. Can’t wait to finally meet you and hear you speak in Atlanta.


  3. Mike Spanjar said at 8:30 am on

    Great insight on the side of empathy, Bob. I see its value as it relates to the sales process and certainly how it helps us get along with those close to us — especially our spouses!

    Ordinarily, an emotion like empathy would be difficult for me to champion when I consider how my hero, Ayn Rand, would respond to such feelings. As a fan yourself, you know what I mean. She has said that man must exist for his own sake, not others. Rand tells us that self interest is our highest moral purpose. Quite the opposite of empathy.

    But then, I also recall (and I believe it’s from The Virtue of Selfishness) when Rand acknowledged that making sacrifices for someone we love (and can’t live without) is not a sacrifice at all. If that’s the case, and assuming I love making sales, being empathetic is a virtue.

    Well, I’m glad we had this conversation. Keep up the great work!

  4. Kim White said at 9:43 am on

    Bob, I think you are so right about this.

    When I’m having trouble seeing something from someone else’s point of view I journal as if I’m them talking about their struggle to understand me. Who knows if I get it right, but it definitely pulls me out of my own head and makes me realize that there may be a lot going on with the other person that I’m not taking into account and a lot about me that I don’t know. We forget to actual verbalize what’s rolling around in out heads. And that starts with asking a question and really listening to what the other person has to say, being present with them.

  5. Linda Ryan said at 12:08 pm on

    Once again, you’ve really got me thinking Bob. I always thought that if I hadn’t been through a similar experience, all I could offer was sympathy. And I don’t think many people (at least I don’t) enjoy receiving sympathy. Your post lets me see very clearly that I CAN offer empathy (which is WAY better!) just by letting them know that I “understand they are feeling…something”
    Thank you Mr. Brilliant. I love when a new idea creates a light bulb in my head 🙂

  6. Geneva said at 12:24 pm on

    You have the best readers,followers, etc., because you are the BEST!

    Somewhere in my psyche there is a switch that got flipped when it came to empathy / sympathy & compassion. Always being a people person, but never being the drama queen somehow caused me to appear non-empathetic. Working in critical care forever forced me to push my feelings aside to deal with split second decisions. I was always referred to being the sweetest nurse in the entire hospital, yet I had no tolerance for drama in life. In 2004 I had to do a spiritual gifts test & I tested medium for mercy. This concerned me because I feed hot, hungry Texas birds/animals, give to the poor, cook, clean, sew, volunteer my guts out, & genuinely LOVE people. I realized at this point that because I had lived in survival mode for such a long time it affected my appearance of E/S/C. In counseling hundreds of single adults, I listened to the tears, fears, & hopelessness, but was never sincerely, passionately, moved by them. I went straight from problem identified to problem solved mode. I anticipated a transference of my survival mode onto them. My choleric side didn’t help either! Needless to say…..that doesn’t always work. Since I have mentored with amazing men & women who teach value, trust, & the art of building relationships, I have learned how to problem identify, listen, listen, listen, & when they are ready….problem solve. I can’t fix everything. People just need to be heard! My E/S/C quotient has intensified & I continue to grow & change.

    I so appreciate you Bob Burg! 🙂

  7. As ever Bob, a touching, thought provoking and heartfelt post. You may have no idea how timely your words are and the impact they will have but rest assured you have communicated extraordinarily well – true EI. Thank-you my friend 🙂


    The Entrepreneur Lawyer
    (of the naked kind)

  8. Bob Burg said at 6:24 pm on

    Glenn: Thank you for your very kind feedback as well as your thoughts and suggestion!

    Al: Thank you. Looking forward to meeting you, as well, in Atlanta at Sarah’s upcoming event!

    Hi Mike: I’m not of the opinion that empathy conflicts with self-interest any more than caring for and/or about another human being is a conflict with self-interest. I always interpreted Rand’s thoughts on “self-interest” or “selfishness” to mean whatever aligned with your own personal values. I think your third paragraph regarding sacrifice sums it up very well. And, whether in sales or any other context, if caring about providing value to others is something one holds to be of value, then it is in their rational self-interest to act in accordance with that. Of course, if one was self-sacrificial or a “doormat” of some kind, there would be a problem. But, I don’t see empathy and self-interest as being dichotomous in any way. Thank you for your kind words and always thought-provoking comments!

    Kim: Great thoughts. Thank you for sharing with us!

    Linda(r): Thank you. You make some terrific points! Thank YOU, Ms. Brilliant. Keep those light bulbs-a-….lighting?

    Geneva: Aww, thank you, my friend. And thank you for being one of my awesome readers and friends! You just taught some great lessons in your comments. Thank you! I appreciate you!

    Chrissie: Thank you. So glad you enjoyed the post. I appreciate your always kind and encouraging feedback!

  9. Pamela McBride said at 9:24 pm on

    Truly honored, my dear friend, to be mentioned.

    I’ve been at the hospital all day with my dear little Ashley. When she was waiting for her next dose of pain medication, she began to squirm in the bed and breathe shallowly…her eyes began to fill with tears…and I spoke from experience, “Darlin’, you’ve heard that we need to take things one day at a time?”

    She nodded, “Yes.”

    I said, “Well, in this, take it one minute at a time, those minutes will build into hours, than days…and then with time, you will heal. Breathe slowly; a nurse is on her way., okay?”

    She nodded her head, “yes” again.

    And when she closed her eyes and began to breathe more easily, I began to breathe more easily too. Was that empathy or relief? I think, both. :-).

    Thank you, again,

  10. Bob Burg said at 10:19 pm on

    Powerful story, Pam. And, I’d say what you displayed was empathy at it’s finest. As Zig Ziglar has said, “when you have empathy you are part of the solution. When you have sympathy you become part of the problem.” You were empathetic to the max. And, being Ashley’s Grandmother…I’m sure relief kicked in big-time! 🙂

  11. Dixie Gillaspie said at 10:48 pm on

    What Al said here reminded me of another powerful post, Bob. The one about “offering our silence.” That is the one thing I struggle with in this online connected world – while I feel my online friends ARE my “real life” friends – offering silence is difficult at best. But silence is such a powerful conduit for emotion. And as to the comment about what Ayn Rand might say; I don’t think that “self interest” is the opposite of empathy at all. We learn from experience, by employing empathy we learn from other’s experience as well as our own. We grow in personal power by moving through our experiences and feelings into higher understanding – empathy accelerates that growth. And never, ever do we attain our highest purpose and biggest dreams by ourselves – having empathy draws others into our sphere who will be our partners (intentionally or not) in our achieving everything we desire. Empathy is a perfect example of “enlightened self interest.”

  12. Bob Burg said at 10:53 pm on

    WOW – Awesome all the way, Dixie!!

  13. Bob,
    Love the post, but fund myself (not the first time) struggling with the “self-interest” issues. First, please know that I understand that even in my most sincere efforts, I understand that any selflessness I show to others, must first flow through my “self-interest screen.” In others words, I don’t see myself as someone who is truly selfless, but instead, someone who desires to be. I guess the issue I have with this philosophy is where it sounds as if “selfishness” can be considered a “virtue”.

    I guess the bottom line on this issue for me is, I will ne’er master true selflessness, I don’t think anyone will, but I will strive toward it and enjoy the times where I am fortunate enough to experience it, because those are the times in life that I look back on with the fondest memories-even when they caused significant difficulties at the time.

  14. Bob Burg said at 7:48 am on

    Hi Steve, actually, I kind of wish Mike had not brought up that concept in this context but, since he did, Dixie and I both felt compelled to respond with our own thoughts. The biggest difficulty with this concept is that Ayn Rand used terms such as “selfish” to make a point (and, an excellent point if you study her writings). However, in doing so, she turned off just about everyone who did not take time to really study what she “really” meant by those words. In saying “selfish” (and “self-interest”) she really was speaking – NOT of hurting someone else through your actions but rather – of living according to your values. And, yes, the values would be what we would think of as positive values. In that case, “self-LESS-ness” (living opposite of your value system) would be something negative. In this case, Steve, we are really talking about semantics. If you’re interested in getting deeper into understanding what she meant, pick up her book “The Virtue of Selfishness” but, really, based on what you wrote above, I wouldn’t really put too much time into struggling with this one.

    I truly wish that Ayn Rand – as brilliant as she was – would have communicated in such a way that the majority of people would have been attracted to learn more about her awesome message rather than be turned off by her terminology (and, often, by her attitude). While certainly not a perfect person, she was a treasure chest full of wisdom.

  15. Bob, I sincerely regret lifting the lid on Pandora’s box. It surely was not my intention to derail the beauty of your message. In Steve’s contribution, I do see Randian thought, but it sounds to me that his is a personal admission that he grapples with being genuinely selfless all the time, but enjoys when he experiences it. Sounds like me. In fact, on a recent visit to the grocery store, I noticed the woman in front of me left her change on the counter. I saw it sitting there only after I checked out. I grabbed it and walked briskly to the parking lot. Luckily, I found her near her car. As I handed her the change, I thought briefly about how I, as a freelance writer, am struggling through this recession and any extra money in my pocket helps. But the feeling I got giving the woman what was hers (and she, too, may be struggling) gave me a joy that those couple of dollars never could have bought.

  16. Bob Burg said at 8:57 am on

    That’s okay, Mike. It’s always great when it elicits good, helpful discussion, which this has. So, here is the interesting thing about what you wrote in doing that very nice deed. What you did (even though you could have used the money) was in alignment with your highest values…your highest SELF; thus, Ayn Rand would call that “selfish”…not “selfless.” (You even experienced “JOY” knowing that you lived in accordance with your value system.) 🙂 Now, of course, anyone not familiar with Rand and her lexicon of terms would see referring to that as “selfish” as being totally opposite. That is why – if there is anything I regret about Miss Rand, aside from her often-dismissive attitude – is that she simply made it too difficult for most people to care to get past the surface of her ideas. What a shame. It ends up boiling down to an explanation of semantics rather than the actual “thing.”

  17. hi Bob

    May I suggest a further resource to learn more about empathy and compassion.
    The Center for Building a Culture of Empathy
    The Culture of Empathy website is the largest internet portal for resources and information about the values of empathy and compassion. It contains articles, conferences, definitions, experts, history, interviews,  videos, science and much more about empathy and compassion.

    Also, I invite you to post a link to your article about empathy to our Empathy Center Facebook page.

    I posted a link to your article in our
    Empathy and Compassion Magazine
    Empathy in the Workplace
    The latest news about empathy and compassion from around the world

  18. James Ryan said at 12:45 pm on

    The Challenge of Empathy

    Great stuff! I agree with the gist of the conversation here. I would just like to add that empathy is also a challenge for sales people. I have seen salesmen who are high in empathy “let prospects off the hook” when an excuse or objection came up.

    The empathetic salesman *could* think, “That’s reasonable. I’d feel the same way if I were in their shoes. It’s ok if they don’t buy now.”

  19. Bob Burg said at 2:50 pm on

    Hi Edwin, my apologies; I just now saw your comment. I’ve heard many TERRIFIC things about your organization and just visited your site. Great job you are doing. Thank you! Oh, and thank you for posting a link to the article. Very appreciated!

  20. Bob Burg said at 2:55 pm on

    Hi James, while that could certainly happen, it might not be so much that it’s empathy but something closely related to it. I remember a terrific teaching from Zig Ziglar in which he discusses the difference between empathy and sympathy. He wrote (paraphrased) that empathy allows one to live in the solution while sympathy typically focuses on the problem. He used the example that if you were on a cruise ship and saw that someone was sea sick, if you have empathy, you get them a cold washcloth, some sea sick pills and you call the ship’s doctor. On the other hand, if you have sympathy, you identify *so strongly* that you become sea sick yourself and are no good to anyone. 🙂 Just something to think about. Thank you for joining us!!

  21. James Ryan said at 8:57 am on

    Thanks for the reply Bob. You and Zig are right. Many assessments used for sales or other hires often purport to measure “empathy.” and not “sympathy.”

    The challenge that I have found in coaching salespeople who test high in “empathy” fall into the “sympathy” trap.

    The true empathetic solution, as you say, is to “sell” the prospect and alleviate that pain.

  22. Bob Burg said at 9:06 am on

    Thank you, James. And, based on what I’m reading from you…it sounds like you are doing some TERRIFIC work in that regard. Thank you!

  23. […] Focus July 5th, 2012 by Bob Burg We’ve previously discussed the importance of Empathy. I’ve always loved Zig Ziglar’s explanation regarding the difference between empathy […]

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