I follow a blog called BrainPickings. This week I was intrigued by the lead article reviewing a book, You Must Change Your Life: The story of Rainer Maria Rilke and Auguste Rodin.  The author states that the greatest gift Rodin gave to Rilke was the “art of empathy.” I’m sharing my source, as I have not done my own full research on the matter. I have not read the book either, yet.

My particular interest was in the origin of the term “empathy.” Credited for it’s invention, Wilhelm Wundt (a German doctor) and Theodor Lipps (a philosopher), it all began in art. Their idea was that the power in a work of art is not in the art itself, rather in the act of viewing the art. Here are a few quotes from the blog post to flesh out the concept.

The act of looking, then, becomes a creative process, and the viewer becomes the artist.

When we project our emotions, ideas or memories into an object, we are “feeling into” it.

People sometimes describe themselves as “losing themselves” in a powerful work of art.

Our modern day focus on empathy for people was born out of this early focus on art. Sigmund Freud and other psychologists adapted Lipp’s philosophy to our work of understanding our fellow human beings. Today the Webster second definition states empathy as:

The action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.

We know it’s a good thing to be empathetic with people around us at work (and home). We might think about it as being caring of other’s views and situation. What we often leave on the table is the value of “seeing into” or “feeling into” the people who matter. This skill is often at the heart of my work with clients. I don’t think of the skill or perspective as a “soft skill,” rather a strategic advantage in leading, influencing, and engaging people in the core challenges or our organizations’ work.