When you show deep empathy toward others, their defensive energy goes down, and positive energy replaces it. That’s when you can get more creative in solving problems. – Stephen Covey
I speak to all my clients about the importance of empathy, the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes to better comprehend their perspective on things.
I frequently state that there is a strong correlation between empathy and success as a leader and I believe that when we understand another’s perspective, it informs us about the best way to communicate and connect with them.
But what does empathy really mean, beyond putting yourself in their shoes?
Bréne Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate School of Social Work. She has written on a wide range of topics including vulnerability, courage, worthiness, and shame. Her TED talks have received in excess of 6 million views over the years.
I recently came across a short, three-minute cartoon that is narrated by her that explains the difference between empathy and sympathy.
When I asked my clients if they know the difference between sympathy and empathy, everyone usually nods yes and we move on from there.
Dr. Brown states that empathy fuels connections with others and sympathy drives disconnection. When we express sympathy, which is usually very well intended and positive, there is still an inherent message that we are very glad this is not happening to us. So let’s examine further what empathy is all about.
Empathy How Tos
Dr. Brown states that there are 4 qualities of empathy:
- We recognize their perspective as their truth. Even if you suspect their perspective may be faulty in some way, stay with understanding it from their point of view at this stage of your interaction.
- We do this without judgment. This can be very difficult to do, especially if you jump into evaluating what you have heard for purposes of problem-solving. That can come later when you are sure you understand the situation and they are ready for any input you may have.
- We do our best to recognize the emotion of the other person – that they are angry, frustrated, exhausted or however you can most accurately describe their emotion.
- We communicate our understanding of that emotion, which reinforces that we connect with the feelings they have shared with us.
Empathy can be as simple as acknowledging the frustration of a coworker who is dealing with new software they can’t seem to make work – e.g. “I know that can be very frustrating and I’m sorry you had to put this much time into making it work.”
Make it about you
A client once shared with me that their father had recently passed away after a long illness.
Although I am friendly with my clients, I try to maintain a boundary regarding our personal lives. In this case, my client made a vulnerable choice to connect with me about this, and having lost my father a couple years earlier, I was in a position to say that I know what a difficult time this must be for him.
This did not give me the right to talk about my experience, since it was more important to ask him about his. It should always be about the other person’s needs and perspective, unless they request that we share ours with them.
Find the “silver lining”
We will often try to do what is possible to make things better for someone who has shared a challenging situation. Rarely can a response make something better and trying to find the “silver lining” in a difficult situation, no matter how well intended you are, can often be rather counterproductive.
For example, “We all lose a sale from time to time, but you’ll learn from it,” does not help someone who spent 6 months working on a prospective sale. Stay with their feelings – don’t try to minimize the emotions they are experiencing.
Dr. Brown also mentions that we often make mistakes in trying to be empathic and one is that the words, “At least…” should never be used. For instance, if a friend shares that their difficult boss has been exceptionally nasty lately, you do NOT want to reply, “Well, at least you have a job.”
A prerequisite to empathy is simply paying attention to the person in pain. – Daniel Goleman
Try to “it’s not as bad as…” them
Never share an incident that you feel is similar but where the stakes were higher or the outcome was more negative. For example, “Well, you think that’s bad? Let me tell you about the time…” We hope this might help the other person not feel so bad by comparison, but it will rarely do so.
As Dr. Brown says, it is often better to say, “I don’t even know what to say right now, but I am glad you shared that with me.”
The most important thing you can do is to convey that you are willing to listen. Do not try to problem solve their issue until they choose to solicit your support.
By being patient and letting them describe how this issue or situation is impacting them, you are building a better connection with them.
If others are willing to share their concerns or challenges with you, it indicates that you have already developed a reasonably good reputation as an empathetic individual.
Demonstrating empathy creates connections and can develop trust with others and trust is the fundamental lubricant that makes good relationships work.
- Do I demonstrate patient listening when someone chooses to share a problem or challenge with me?
- Do I jump into problem-solving mode before others have had a fair chance to even ask for my help?
- Can you think of a recent situation where you demonstrated good empathy with another? Why do you feel you were effective in that situation?
I look forward to your thoughts and comments.