Empathy is defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. This sounds fairly straightforward but there is a catch. The thing about empathy is that we all have it within us, but we don’t all have the courage to show it to ourselves and others.
In a recent Forbes article, a Senior Contributor answered the question of the importance of empathy in successful leaders, “Empathy enables you to know if the people you’re trying to reach are actually reached. Without empathy, you can’t build a team or nurture a new generation of leaders. You will not inspire followers or elicit loyalty… Essentially empathy is a neutral data gathering tool that enables you to understand the human environment within which you are operating in business and therefore make better predictions, craft better tactics, inspire loyalty and communicate clearly.”
We are going to start with a thought prompt this month. Without thinking about the right answer or what you should be doing, just honestly write what surfaces as you complete this sentence: I listen with the intent to …
If you wrote down anything besides “understand,” then this article may help you deepen your awareness around your capacity to feel empathy. I wrote, “I listen with the intent to understand, connect, be heard, reply, persuade, and sometimes, make a point.” What I realized as I reflected on the content for this article is that often we frame empathy as something we give others. That is not possible until we can first turn it on ourselves.
SELF-EMPATHY is the act of giving yourself empathy, listening to one’s own feelings and unmet needs with compassion and understanding. Self-Empathy reconnects us to our life, our feelings and our needs. It is the source of the healthy energy we require to greet life and “not grind it.”
Tool to build self-empathy:
MANTRA: If you wouldn’t say it to a dear friend, don’t say it to yourself.
Next time you find yourself engaging in negative self-talk, see if stopping the pattern helps by using the quick process flow explained below:
THOUGHT: If you’re beating yourself up about your current role/job for example, under thought you could write, “I’ll never get promoted.”
EMOTION: Sit with the thought for a few minutes and pay attention to the emotions that bubble up. Do you feel frustrated? Embarrassed? Sad? After emotion, write down all the feelings that surface.
EVIDENCE: Write anything that challenges the negative thought. For example, “I studied hard to train for this role” or “I work hard and I love what I do.”
NEW THOUGHT: Write a replacement for the original thought that takes into account the evidence. For example, “I haven’t found the right role yet, but I believe I am getting closer every day.”
NEW EMOTION: Finally, write down how this new thought makes you feel. Hopeful? Free? Repeat this exercise daily until thought-stopping and replacement happens naturally.
When you feel like you are building your ability to show empathy for yourself, then focusing your practice on others is the natural progression.
EMPATHY FOR OTHERS means you identify with and care about others. In the simplest form, you are a powerful listener.
Tool for building empathy for others:
It helps to remember what empathy is not and these phrases will help trigger the need to stop talking and rethink how we engaging as leaders in every interaction at work and otherwise. Memorize these phrases so you can recognize them quickly and interrupt old patterns. Marshall Rosenberg outlines what empathy is not:
Advising: “I think you should…”
One- upping: “That’s nothing wait until you hear what happened to me.”
Educating: “this could turn into a positive experience if you just…”
Consoling: “It wasn’t your fault…”
Story telling: “That reminds me of the time…”
Shutting the other down: “Cheer up. Don’t feel so badly.”
Sympathizing: “oh you poor thing”
Interrogating: “When did this begin?”
Explaining: “I would have called you…”
Here is a practice for being the listener and offering empathy:
The key element to empathy is to be present to whatever the other person is experiencing. Receiving with empathy, what the other person is saying, has conscious steps:
- Reflect the observation: Colleague says, “I am so frustrated with the leadership in my company.” You say, “It sounds like there are things you are not getting from those that are making the decisions in your organization? Is that part of your frustration?”
- Ask how they are feeling: Colleague says, “exactly and I feel like they take credit for all my work!”
- Explore unmet needs. You say: “Without that recognition, it can be difficult to know where you stand.”
- Given the identification of the unmet need, ask: “Maybe we could brainstorm options and come up with some you haven’t previously explored. How does that sound?”
- Listen between the lines for feelings and needs, but mostly just listen.
SOCIAL EMPATHY is for those leaders that are proficient in showing empathy to themselves and in their direct communication with others. Social empathy means that a person shows a deep understanding and concern/support for a group of people in an organization, community, country, or world. As a matter of fact, there is a list of the most empathetic countries in the world.
Tool for building social empathy:
Showing empathy for groups or causes can sometimes deepen one’s skills for showing self-empathy and empathy in one-on-one interactions but it requires a fairly high level of those skills in place to be truly empathetic and effective on a systemic level.
Ask yourself these questions to assess your readiness:
- In what ways do you cultivate curiosity about groups/teams/cultures etc. you have come into contact with lately? Be specific.
- How do you demonstrate your ability to challenge prejudice in the search for common ground? Be specific.
- Describe a time you recently walked in another group/organization etc. shoes. For example, if you are religious, try attending services of different faiths and pay attention to your thoughts and feelings during this exercise in developing empathy.
- Write about a time you were a radical listener and that act inspired collective understanding. Empathy thrives on a collective scale but the seeds have to be planted. This is not about just sharing information about a cause on social media. This is about connection and understanding and it takes time to foster. Without empathy, there is little understanding and ineffective social change. Wasted energy is the result. The understanding is the foundation and empathizing with adversaries takes courage and builds the collective capacity for change.
I will leave you with this powerful observation. The word LISTEN contains the same letters as the word SILENT.