03/04/2013 09:20 am ET Updated May 04, 2013

What Is Your Empathy IQ? How Did It Get There?

What is your empathy IQ? How did it get there? Why is empathy identified as a critical factor in high-performing individuals?

The Sustained Dialogue Campus Network, with funding from the Fetzer Institute, invited individuals to describe their experiences with empathy, and Huffington Post joined the effort by posting the winners of the inaugural Empathy Essay Contest. We are privileged that two members of the Fetzer Advisory Councils, Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Elena Cox, were willing to respond to the essay prompts and winners. Jackie Joyner-Kersee is considered by many to be the single greatest female athlete of our lifetime. Elena Cox has worked with a cadre of celebrated athletes and social entrepreneurs to "decode" the DNA of empathy in sport and social impact.

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Jackie Joyner-Kersee provides the first in a 5-part series introducing the winners of The Fetzer Institute -- Sustained Dialogue Empathy Essay Contest.

In the winning Empathy Essays appearing here during the next few days, you will read stories where an individual, often in an unplanned moment, clears the hurdle of escalating conflict to reach new momentum in their understanding of others. I cannot begin to compete with their eloquence, so instead I will offer reflections on "empathy" as a process and a skill.

According to Hal Saunders, founder of the International Institute for Sustained Dialogue, "Dialogue is a process of genuine interaction through which human beings listen to each other deeply enough to be changed by what they learn...."

Hal's definition of dialogue as a genuine human interaction reflects one of my strongest core values. I am deeply committed to being open-minded about others' viewpoints and it is a lesson that every single one of my coaches treated as an imperative for success. My legacy as a person will be reflected in my capacity to pass this on to the next generation, especially here in East St. Louis, where my work brings me close to high-school girls competing in track and in life.

An important early lesson for me was realizing that the art of listening applies equally to self and others. Even as I developed my voice, and gave it more and more volume, I also had to accept that my greatest responsibility is to listen to that voice and force it to be louder than the noise around me.

This hasn't been as simple as it sounds. Just as my determination shaped my success on the track, developing my voice required serious practice: seeking real feedback, watching others, pushing my limits, and asking questions. Finding my stride in dialogue required placing myself in spaces where people both agreed and disagreed with me. In the end, I have learned that empathy may not be a natural reflex for each of us, but it can be developed and nurtured over a lifetime. Learning to flex my empathy muscle made me stronger. It helped shape me into a leader who listens.

I have a voice. I know what it feels like to be the subject of racism and discrimination and to have your spirit beat down. I have had to watch the spirits of those I love and admire crushed. Each time, I heard the inner voice that helps each of us deal with it all, that tells us to push forward and remember that we have more in us to give, to feed from the desire to win and persevere. That inner voice blocks out all others. And, it is the same voice that helps me be truly present and open to hearing others, even those I most disagree with, without losing myself, or feeling threatened by differences.

As you'll see in the upcoming essays, empathy creates allies from unusual suspects. I challenge you to hold this as a mandate, especially if you want to surround yourself with winners who strive for new and greater challenges.