Empathy has a pretty cheesy rep in the workplace, pop culture and society in general. Merriam Webster defines it as the feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions : the ability to share someone else’s feelings.
Here’s sweet and enlightening conversation with animation by Brené Brown on the magic of empathy (article & list of tips continued below).
It’s the butt of many jokes– the word, “feelings.” It seems to be taken seriously only in kindergarden and therapy sessions. Many associate weakness with the ability to feel; then, logically, many associate power with the ability to not feel.
The truth, however, is that investing energy and focus into understanding someone else’s feelings reaches beyond power and into the realms of superpowers. When you empathize, you earn trust, you gain awareness, you can bring peace to an unsettled mind, you can offer solutions. Let’s face it: you’ll also get more interpersonal “likes” from others. Need I say more?
Interestingly, to build my case for empathy I highlight what the person giving empathy will gain with the hopes that our natural tendencies (basically our survival instincts) are more likely to embrace self-serving perks. However, alongside these benefits rest the benefits given to the recipient of your empathy such as validation, solutions, a moment to brainstorm and connect, sanity and peace of mind. For both the giver and recipient of empathy productivity improves, healing strategies improve and trust builds.
You can’t fake empathy.
There are those that practice empathy and those that don’t. Once it’s accessed and employed, one’s inner superman comes out, psyched to help others.
Here are some tips for how to foster and practice empathy:
1. Pause. Stop. Focus. When we’re running around all day answering questions, kissing asses, making deadlines and competing, we tend to not stop. Like a newsfeed, we keep moving. To practice empathy, however, you can’t pull a “walk with me to my car,” or “email me later about this.” Don’t evoke “I’m annoyed. I’ll deal with it later” vibes. You have to be in the present moment. What is this person feeling right now, this very second?
2. Listen. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve done this to others or have had it done to me: “the look like you’re listening while not listening.” This one is a bruise; it inevitably ends with more pain. Two things usually happen. You have heard everything all wrong or perhaps nothing at all, and the person resultantly feels ignored. The other outcome could be that the whole time the person is talking you have already formulated in your mind what he/she is feeling instead of actively examining the scenario and potential emotional triggers.
3. Do NOT problem-solve. Sure of course, we get the gist. You feel like shit because so and so forgot to call. I get it. That sucks. Well just call her instead. Problem solved. Let’s move on. That’s a good thing right? Nope. The problem is most definitely not solved because most likely what bothers the person isn’t that he/she couldn’t talk to so and so, but the fact that so and so didn’t call first. It’s easy to jump into problem-solve mode and evade the emotional issue. When it comes to empathy what’s most practical or efficient is usually not the answer.
4. Don’t make assumptions. If someone is upset because a boss never responded to his/her email. It’s best not to assume why. This can lead to meaningless feedback like, “Oh, you’re just being paranoid,” or worse, “Uh oh. That’s not a good sign.” Simply validating the person’s feelings with “that would make me nervous too,” or “that’s stressful. Let me know if there’s anything I can do” can provide relief and emotional support to the recipient of the empathy.
5. Ask yourself. How would you feel if your sister had just called you to tell you that she was diagnosed with something serious?
6. Process. While listening is required, so is processing what the person is saying. Understand the context. Perhaps you might not see what the big deal is about getting a parking ticket, but in the context of the person’s life, it could another blister in a burn. Maybe his/her spouse is out of work or his/her laptop just got stolen. It might not even be a tangible context. The person may have already been feeling something else when he/she noticed the ticket on the windshield. Think critically. Don’t just blurt a common phrase.
7. Ask them. By asking more questions to the person who is telling you about a tough challenge he/she is facing, the person will really feel paid attention to and supported. Additionally, you will gain insight and become more able to empathize. Little things like, “can I do anything to help?” or “why do you think you’re feeling this way?” can go a long way.
8. Monitor your own emotions and reactions. By checking in with your own feelings you can catch any distortions or biases before they come out verbally or cloud your comprehension of the issue.
In other words, tune in, not out. Zoom in and get a clearer picture. Focus.
Sources and suggested readings:
I’m so pleased to announce that three of my poems, “Slots,” “Scraping” and “Make a Decision” have been published in Barking Sycamores Literary Magazine Issue 13. Barking Sycamores is dedicated to neurodivergent literature and its craft. I’m so honored to be a part of this project. Barking Sycamores Issue 13
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