Navigating Relationships with Empathy: The Differentiator

Have you ever gotten into an argument, or “an intense discussion,” with someone where, as you listened to them you could feel the heat rising in your face? Your stomach begins to churn, or your pulse quickens? You have a thousand thoughts racing through your mind, and you’re almost biting your tongue to stay quiet. Then you decide it’s time to jump in, but the actual words that come out of your mouth are a) either pure anger – like “You’re an idiot” – but not necessarily helping the situation or b) a jumbled mess. All those thousand thoughts knot together and come out as a stream of consciousness rather than with the surgical precision that you intended. You left that argument frustrated and potentially with a mess to clean up, something that was said out of anger or lacking clear isolation of the central issue that was the subject of the argument in the first place and no path to a solution. 

Then, the next day, you’re in the shower or driving to work, your mind is just meandering, and then IT pops into your mind. You may have even blurted out, “What I should have said was…” 

Thats what I should have said

Yep, this has definitely happened to me. If this has happened to you, welcome to the party – the human party. We are wired to do exactly what I just described. 

In your workplace, the presence of what would make you feel more engaged? 

I’ve asked this question often, as part of organizational culture assessments or team building for clients. Invariably, the three most common answers, and not always in this order, are:

  1. Clear leadership vision
  2. More regular feedback, and 
  3. More empathy from my manager. 

Empathy is one of the most important ingredients in emotional intelligence. Empathy isn't a new topic, but it's definitely taken center stage over the past several years. A global pandemic that caused or surfaced huge gaps in healthcare, racial and gender equity, employees fleeing traditional workplace environments, and reprioritization of personal well-being, to name just a few. 

Your opportunity now, rather than pausing and potentially losing momentum, after what feels like an exhausting storm, is to stay the course in pursuit of your inclusive values.

Empathy is the ability to be aware of and care about the feelings of others. 

This doesn’t mean that we will always “understand” where the other person is coming from. 

Empathy is NOT “walking in another person’s shoes.” Sometimes we can’t. I have never lived in a war zone. I do not know what it feels like to be disowned by my parents because of my identity. I have not had first-hand experience of being fired from a job. But I CAN listen, be in a comforting and loving space with, and genuinely FEEL and EXPRESS care about the feelings and implications of the situation they are in with a person who is or has gone through any of these experiences. This is empathy, the ability to have and demonstrate care for another person. 

Empathy is not just a “feel good” quality; research has shown time and time again that the characteristics that differentiate outstanding performers are social and emotional competencies–like empathy–rather than directly correlated with intelligence or technical ability. Given the important role of empathy and emotional intelligence in your effectiveness, it’s also important to state that empathy can be learned, practiced, and increased. We aren’t “stuck with what we have” at any given point.

An important qualification must be noted here: Do not wait until you are in the middle of an “intense discussion” or exhausted, scared, or at your wit's end to practice growing your empathy. The time to invest in this kind of learning is now, when you can set a growth-oriented intention based on the pursuit of your values rather than fleeing from fear.  

The next steps are yours:

  • I invite you to think about how emotions play a role in our thinking and behavior. 
  • Consider your personal level of ability to manage your own emotions. An informal self-assessment is a great start. Think about specific experiences where your emotions – positive and negative – were fully engaged.
  • Don’t stop with self-assessment. Your empathy is best gauged by the impact you have on others. Invite 2 or 3 people close to you to give you feedback. Ask them to share their perspectives on how your emotions show up for them. 
  • Finally, make a commitment to regularly check in on yourself and your relationships. How are you showing empathy in ways that are visible to and experienced by others?

Demonstrating empathy is part of an ongoing journey. The goal is not to "reach" it, but to commit to continuous improvement through intentional practice.

With Love,



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DeEtta Jones & Associates (DJA) guides leaders and organizations on a journey that builds capacity, strengthens innovation, and increases organizational performance by creating a more equitable, diverse, and inclusive environment.

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