What exactly is empathy and why is there so much buzz about it?
In another blog I wrote about how coaches can bring stability to their teams, I describe empathy as a super power. What comes to mind when you think of a super power? Maybe you picture something from The Avengers. Batman and Wonder Woman aside, empathy fits well as our version of a super power because it gives us the ability to understand how someone else feels. To see things as they see them, even when we don't like it or agree. It's always been our most unique gift, but one that seems to be slipping in standards in public discourse.
Empathy isn't natural for everyone. That's okay.
Empathy comes naturally and easily for plenty of people. You can think of three people who are effortlessly empathetic. Alternatively, there are those of who need to build the skill of empathy because it doesn't happen instinctively.
Building the skill of empathy makes a huge difference in your relationships. From your significant other, to your teammates, even the random person sitting next to you on a plane. Everyone benefits from empathy.
This is especially useful for those of us in a leadership role who want to use influence with our teams.
Understanding where your teammates are coming from helps you lead them to find their path to success. When your team performs at its best under your leadership, it not only benefits them, it benefits you.
Keep in mind: raising empathy does not mean lowering standards. That's not empathy. It's excuse-making.
Self-awareness is an absolute must for building skill in empathy. You can't begin to understand how someone else feels if you don't understand yourself. Evaluate and understand where you are, how you got there, the challenges you've faced, and the opportunities afforded to you.
Turn that self-awareness into perspective. The perspective to see the world around you and the unique challenges that every person faces. Not in spite of your own experiences. Not to devalue someone else's experiences. But to understand how that person feels because of their unique circumstances.
Ask better questions.
The right questions make a massive difference in understanding vs. ignorance. Empathetic people ask better questions. Questions that provide insights into the heart and mind of the other person. There is a method to asking insightful questions. It starts with being curious and ends with simple, intentional, basic listening.
Practicing empathy means you're curious about someone else's thoughts and feelings. If you're not curious it may be because empathy is not a natural strength for you. You need to choose empathy when you don't feel it. You need to choose curiosity.
Great questions are easier to ask when you're curious. Stay interested about their perspective, rather than interview or interrogate people. Ask open ended questions. Put them in control of what and how much they share with you.
Intentional listening means to give your full physical and mental attention to the other person. You're not preparing a response. You're not interrupting to ask your question. You're not offering solutions to questions they didn't ask you.
You're learning about the other person. You're watching their body language and listening to the tone in their words. You can do the natural things that signal you're listening like nodding and facial expressions that show understanding. When you are listening this way, pauses don't feel awkward. Take the time you need after the other person is done speaking to ask another question.
Pay attention to similarities. Appreciate differences.
"We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike" -Maya Angelou
I love this quote because it's a timeless truth. It addresses the misguided perspective that our differences define us. Differences are not bad. They're the fabric of any society. It's not our differences that make us unable to be empathetic, but our unwillingness to look for and see our similarities. When we focus on all our differences, we let those differences polarize us. We begin to fear and dislike anything and anyone who is different than us.
It's a lot easier to show empathy to someone when you can find something in common with their experiences. Sometimes it's easy. Other times it requires deep self-control and high skill. What does this looks like?
It looks like connecting how you felt when you lost a big contract to how someone else feels about bombing an interview for their dream job. It was disappointing. You did all the work, you did your best, and still didn't get what you wanted. This is a generic example but there are plenty of specific examples for anyone who wants to look for them.
Empathy requires you to look for and find common ground. To try to understand how someone feels and why they feel that way. Invalidating a person's beliefs or feelings is the opposite of empathy. I can't stress this enough. Empathy does not mean lowering your standard. It means empowering your team to "be you, align with us."
Here's what few people will tell you: for most of us, empathy is a learned skill. It has to be constantly practiced. It requires tremendous discipline. Don't expect empathy to feel natural after reading this. Don't expect it to feel natural after trying to be empathetic for a month. You get a rep every time you choose empathy in your relationships. The more reps you get, the better you'll get. Over time it might become more natural. It might not. Doesn't matter, get better.
Being intentional about your empathy is actually really cool. It means you get to choose. It makes it more powerful when you act on it.
Integrate it with E+R=O (event + response = outcome). Being intentional about your response to an event means you have great influence and impact on the outcome.
When you choose your response, choose a response that shows empathy.