Why empathy and vulnerability go hand in hand

Depending on who you ask, empathy and vulnerability can be categorized as emotions, cognitive responses or skills. Really, all three classifications are correct.

Both empathy and vulnerability are feelings, but they also stem from cognitive processes and can be trained, just like other skills such as salesmanship or public speaking. Given those parameters, do empathy and vulnerability belong in professional settings? And if so, why?

What is empathy?

Empathy is often confused with sympathy, but they’re actually two different things. If you’re sympathetic to someone’s feelings or situation, it means you understand what they’re going through, but you might not really get how they feel.

With empathy, you actually share those same feelings either because you’re going through the same situation at the same time or because you’ve experienced a similar scenario at another point in your life. While sympathy allows you to feel sorry for someone, empathy is far more powerful because it allows you to put yourself in their shoes.

If you have empathy, you can look at the world from another person’s perspective. Instead of saying, “Well, Bob, I’m really sorry you got a flat tire on the way to work,” you can say, “Oh Bob, I remember when that happened to me. I blew out my tire on I-15. I was so scared I would be late to work, and even more scared I’d get hit while I was putting on the spare by the side of the highway. Why don’t you take a few minutes to grab a coffee and get yourself settled before we start our meeting?”

What is vulnerability?

At its most basic, the word vulnerable means to be exposed or left open to attack. This could be a physical attack such as an assault, emotional attack like name calling, or a mental attack like someone saying your ideas are stupid. In today’s world, vulnerability often means baring yourself to the possibility of judgment or ridicule by sharing thoughts or feelings that others may make fun of or look down on.

Because vulnerability frequently appears in tandem with words like exposed, attack and judgment, people assume that being vulnerable means you’re being weak. Perhaps that’s true if you’re preparing for war or the zombie apocalypse, but if you’re trying to establish meaningful connections and build long-lasting relationships in the workplace or in your private life, learning to be vulnerable is like finding Willy Wonka’s Golden Ticket.

How are empathy and vulnerability a powerful combo?

It’s impossible to have empathy or to be vulnerable without authenticity. When we share pieces of ourselves — memories, fears, little things that make us laugh — we’re letting people in. 

Those are the invisible ties that become human-to-human connections. Best-selling author and social researcher Brené Brown once wrote, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change.” She also believes that “Empathy is about being present with someone, and if you are present and engage and take the armor off, you’ll know what that person across from you needs.”

Think about that second quote for a moment, both as a person and as a professional. By being empathetic and taking your armor off (there’s that vulnerability), you’re not only being a good person, but you’re also putting yourself in a better position to make a sale, close a contract or otherwise have a great day at the office.

Why do empathy and vulnerability matter in the workplace — and can they make you stronger rather than weaker?

Study after study shows that leaders benefit from being vulnerable. When bosses put authenticity and vulnerability ahead of coolness and distance (with empathy often naturally following close behind), they’re more likely to:

  • Gain forgiveness from employees when making an error
  • Earn their employees’ loyalty
  • Make employees feel more comfortable, so they’ll be more likely to share their own feelings, concerns and ideas
  • Stress-proof their organization by increasing staff resilience

There is a deep-seated cultural belief that tells us being vulnerable can lead to our downfall, especially in the workplace where colleagues can be competitors and supervisors are eager to weed out the weak. But the truth is that there is room for balancing strength of purpose and your softer side. You can admit to concerns about an impending merger, for instance, and still share a plan of attack that proves you’re in control.

Sometimes all it takes to build better connections at work is a little practice — and a lot of fun. Get expert help building a culture of empathy and vulnerability in the workplace with KeepWOL.