Imagine these everyday scenarios; they are all true.
- A woman broke down in tears. My partner and I were on a call with a potential client, and she was clearly stressed. Her mother had just been diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She apologized. We responded that it was normal given the circumstances. As primary caregivers to aging parents, we understood.
- A new employee accidentally broke a $150 piece of equipment. He was afraid to let anyone know. His manager took the time to ask what had happened. It turned out the employee wasn’t clear about how to fold it up when he wasn’t using it. The manager showed him again and let him know that he could call him at any time if there was something he didn’t understand.
- A waiter was incredibly short with a table of diners. The people at the table couldn’t understand. They hadn’t been demanding or rude. One of the diners asked the waiter to come over. “You don’t seem like the kind of person who would treat customers rudely. Are you ok?” The waiter’s face and demeanor shifted. He said he was taking care of an ill parent and it had been a particularly hard week. He apologized and thanked them for taking time to ask. Do any of these stories resonate with you? In a world that seems like it is constantly trying to point fingers and create divides, we can all tap into our ability to be empathetic. It is a leadership skill that creates connection—in a family, community or business setting. Empathy can dial down fear and anger, and not only protect our own health and well-being, but also that of those around us. Becoming more empathetic can move us toward a world where people of diverse backgrounds can understand each other better.“Cognitive empathy,” sometimes called “perspective taking,” is our ability to identify and understand other people’s emotions. It means we are feeling with a person, not feeling sorry for someone.
Psychologists Daniel Goleman and Paul Ekman have identified three components of empathy: Cognitive, Emotional and Compassionate.
These translate into:
- Taking time to understand someone else’s perspective
- Listening and asking questions without judgment
- Recognizing the emotion someone is feeling, even when it doesn’t make sense to us
- Communicating back that you heard and understood that person
One of the best ways to build empathy is to tap into the power of the pause. You may have a meditation or mindfulness practice. This is a great way to use those skills in everyday life. The power of the pause is key to strengthening your ability to be more empathetic. Even if we are stressed, we can all learn how to pause. Just the act of recognizing how you feel in the moment, before you act or react, can be the start of building understanding and respect, and allow us to be present for someone else.
We also need to become empathetic with ourselves. If we aren’t in tune with our own emotions, it is difficult to understand another person’s view or pain. If we’ve been taught that empathy is “weakness,” we cannot authentically understand someone else’s experience. That can lead to broken relationships, workplace burnout, a resistance to engage people who are different from ourselves and ultimately contributes to the overall breakdown of trust in our society. We see examples of that every day.
But the more we develop a healthy relationship with our inner voice, the more of an opportunity we have to connect with others. It allows us to move into a place of deeper empathy.
Research shows that women already have a greater capacity to be empathetic. A 2003 study conducted by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that women are more likely to make decisions that are ecologically more responsible and sustainable than men. The researchers found that “women’s higher levels of empathy, altruism and personal responsibility make them more interested in environmentalism as a way to protect not only themselves and their families, but also others.”
That doesn’t mean that men can’t be more empathetic, too. No matter where you are on the gender spectrum, if you are new to actively practicing empathy, that is OK. Like any new skill, it does take practice and you won’t always get it right. But the more you do it, the more natural it becomes. We can all strengthen our ability to be empathetic and become part of building a more peaceful, sustainable future for all of us.
Flexing the Empathy Muscle
The good news is that we all have the capacity to strengthen our ability to be more empathetic. It just takes practice. Here’s how to get started.
Listen. When someone wants to talk to you, put down the phone. Turn off the television. Be present. Consciously look at them and try to turn off your internal “dialogue.” Actively work to hear what they are saying and how they are saying it.
Watch. Pay attention to their body language and yours. Is their body tense? Is yours? Are they tearing up? Do they look flushed and angry? Try not to react or jump to a conclusion. Invite yourself to be present and observe.
Respond. Before sharing your story or your viewpoint, acknowledge what you’ve heard. “That must be very difficult.” “I am so sorry to hear you are going through this.” Try to envision yourself in their situation. Make sure that your response is genuine.
Understand. Ask nonjudgmental questions to learn more. This helps you get a better view of where they are coming from and they understand they’ve been heard, that you are genuinely interested in them and their experience.