Emotional Intelligence Competency

Empathy is the fourth emotional intelligence competency expounded on by Goleman (1995). He maintained it
emanates from a foundation of self-awareness. Hence, openness to our own emotions facilitates our understanding of
the emotions of others. According to Davis (2003) empathy has a variety of meanings stemming from psychological,
psychological/intellectual, sociological, moral, and emotional schools of thought. Scholl’s (2002) provides a quite
comprehensive definition of empathy.

Empathy is the ability to understand and affect the emotional states of others.
    a. The ability to “read” the emotions and emotional states of other.
    b. The ability to determine the situations/triggers that cause various emotional states in others.
    c. The ability to evoke positive and negative emotions states in others.  This often involves understand the self-
       concept and identity of others to avoid negative affect of invalidation (offending) and to evoke positive affect
       by affirmation (positive reinforcement).
    d. Conflict/Negotiation skills. The ability to advocate your positions/interests without invalidating the
       positions/interests of other parties. (¶ 4).

Escalas and Stern (2003) stressed the importance of distinguishing between empathy and sympathy. The authors
categorized the former as “in-feeling” and the later as “with-feeling.”  They explained, “…whereas sympathy stems from
the perspective of an observer who is conscious of another’s feelings, empathy stems from that of a participant who
vicariously merges with another’s feelings” (¶ 3). Conversely, in sympathy the observer’s feelings merely run parallel
with those of another.

Davis (2003) argued that there are philosophical and psychological distinctions between empathy and sympathy,
which are reflected in Max Schieler’s definition of the terms. Schieler opined that sympathy for another occurs at the
time the person is experiencing distress. On the other hand, empathy is felt after the distressing event has transpired.  

Empathy underlies many facets of moral judgment and action (Goleman, 1995).  It develops naturally as we become
more aware of our environment and the pressures that influence one another (Senge, 1990).  The potential benefits of
empathy are two-fold. When we show empathy it can have a calming influence on us as well as the recipient (Mendes,
2003). Further, empathy enhances one’s ability to forgive others (Macaskill, Maltby, & Day, 2002). The literature
indicates that empathy is required to maintain effective relationships in social institutions, including the family and the

Empathy in the family

Goleman (1995) focused on the parent-child relationship in his discussion of empathy within the family. The author
stressed the need for parents to respond empathically toward their children’s emotions. A parent’s lack of empathy is
characterized by (a) ignoring a child’s feeling, (c) being too laissez-fair, and (c) being contemptuous – showing no
respect for how the child feels. Conversely, empathic parents facilitate their child’s emotional well being by recognizing
and attending to their feelings. Further, Goleman elucidated, that children who are treated callously are conditioned to
withhold empathy from others. This notion aligns with Mendes’ (2003) assertion that empathy begets empathy.   

Empathy is also critical for an effective husband-wife relationship. Since empathy entails recognizing and responding
to the needs of another, spouses must demonstrate it with each other to avoid causing frustration, which Saxton
defined as, “the emotion that is experienced when an important need is being blocked” (p. 332). In the discussion on
anger management some of you indicated that you avoid arguments with your spouse by walking away or engaging in
some other activity.  However, according to Saxton (1986) having one’s emotional needs met is one of the most valued
psychological satisfactions in marriage, having more importance than material success and sexual compatibility. Thus,
unwillingness to engage the conflict – constructively of course – reflects a lack of empathy and produces negative
outcomes (Atwater 1986).

Empathy in the workplace

Pollack (2004) stressed the importance of communicating empathetically in the workplace by putting oneself in the
listener’s shoes.  For example, according to Pollack, when asking employees to come to your office, inform them of the
purpose to avoid causing them unnecessary panic.  Early in my management career I was guilty of this insensitivity. I
called one of my employees and asked him if he could come to my office right away.  He said, yes and I hung up the
phone. He arrived within seconds, visibly shaken.  When I asked him why he was upset he exclaimed, “Because I was
afraid I had done something wrong!”  I was shocked and asked him how in the world he reached such a conclusion.  
He responded, “Because you didn’t tell me why you wanted to see me.”  He then said, “How would you like it if your
boss called you into his office without telling you the purpose.”  In reality it happened all of the time. Before going into
management I worked for 15 years on the staff of high-level executives. It was common to get a call from either the
executive or his/her secretary merely informing me to be in the executive’s office at a designated time. The topic was
never given unless I needed to bring some specific documents with me. I thought absolutely nothing of it and never
feared I was being summoned for some infraction on my part.  Because it was a standard operating procedure at that
level of the organization I never gave it a thought. However, I learned a valuable lesson from my employee. I vowed
from then on to spare employees any undue anguish by stating the purpose of my request.

Empathy skills are being emphasized in companies to improve customer relations. SAS, a renowned hi tech company,
incorporated empathy training into its technology training to improve customers relations though improved
communication skills of its technicians (Howell, 2004). Guaspari (2004) provided an interesting perspective, arguing
that organizations should replace customer focus with customer empathy. He sees this as focusing “as” the customer
rather than focusing “on” the customer.  Doing so, he contended conforms to the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you
would have them do unto you.”  


Empathy is a competency that enhances relationships in every aspect of life. There are benefits for both the giver and
receiver. But, can we be too empathic?  The article on Self Awareness addresses Mayer’s (2004) warning about the
negative effect of too much self-awareness.  Similarly, some contributors to a Harvard Business Review article
(Leading by Feel, 2004) stressed that empathy is an emotional intelligence skill that is essential to good leadership,
but one that must be consciously and conscientiously honed to avoid misuse. In that same vein, Bartz (2004)
emphasized the need to balance empathy and compassion with honesty. It is axiomatic that too much of almost
anything (except love) is not good. For certain, empathy should not override honesty or sound decision-making.
However, like self-awareness, most of us run the risk of having too little empathy rather than too much.


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