The value of empathy in career success

By Irina Filonova, in the Inside Higher Ed Carpe Careers series.

“Learner, Input, Achiever, Analytical, Intellection” read my table tent, proclaiming to the world my talents identified by the Gallup Clifton Strength assessment. I was proud of the outcomes because they correctly characterized me as a neuroscience researcher ready to take action.

Suddenly, a postdoc sitting next to me exclaimed, “Empathy? What is that? How come I have it?” This puzzled my analytical mind, which had been trained for years in my scientific research to value logic over emotion. The facilitator quickly described empathy as a precious talent that helped us understand other people and build strong relationships. However, I was not buying this description as a strength I could use to reach my ultimate goals.

Now, six years later, working as a career coach at an institution in Japan and logging countless hours in one-to-one meetings helping others determine career direction, I wholeheartedly agree with one of my postdoc advisee’s statements: “Empathy! I love it! I would not be here without it.” As a result of this shift, I am writing to share how we can use this foundational skill to advance our careers and maintain well-being during a job search.

First things first, let’s define empathy. Empathy is the ability to experience other people’s feelings, emotions, thoughts and behaviors. More simply, it is the ability to put yourself in another’s person shoes. Neuroscience tells us that when we empathize, a special network of brain cells called mirror neurons is activated, allowing us to “mirror” the others’ experience. For example, when I work with a postdoc who struggles to find a job amid pandemic and Brexit concerns, my mirror neurons are working hard to create an experience of frustration and anxiety mixed with hope, allowing me to understand the state of mind of my advisee. Likewise, I am full of joy and excitement when reading a message from a graduate student who landed a dream position.

To note, empathy is different from sympathy and compassion. Specifically, sympathy expresses an understanding and concern for a situation, and unlike empathy, it lacks the feeling of sharedness and closeness. Compassion, on the other hand, takes empathy to the next level by adding a desire to alleviate suffering and discomfort. With the clarified terminology, let’s explore why it is beneficial to consider empathy skills when managing careers, applying for a job or conducting interviews. . . .

Read more at Inside Higher Ed

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