Empathy doesn’t come naturally to me.
Growing up the only boy and the youngest of 3 meant I got most of what I wanted.
If I cried loud enough, I would get the toy, the ice cream, or whatever my little heart desired.
That led to me being quite self-centered and I didn’t account for the feelings of others in my pursuits.
For lack of a better word, I was a brat.
Today, I can say that empathy is a big part of my life.
I worked at it! I recognized that my relationships are better, I feel better about myself, and the results I’ve gotten in my career are improved because I’ve prioritized empathy in my life.
I’ve been intentional about being empathetic, and by putting empathy into action, I could reprogram my natural tendencies of selfishness and ego-driven behavior.
What is Empathy, Really?
Outside of those who are missing the basic mental faculties that make us human, we all have the capacity for empathy.
You’ve felt anger, sadness, joy, peace, stress, anxiety, love, and fear.
I’ve felt these emotions as well.
Empathy is when we can relate to one another by recognizing the emotion another is feeling, then tapping into our experience of that emotion.
I feel what you feel.
I think as you think.
I experience what you experience.
The challenge with society today is that many studies show that empathy is on the decline. One study has shown a steep decline in empathy among young people over the last number of decades.
In today’s world of physical distancing and social media, it’s easier to focus one’s attention on one’s self and on the “tribe” one is already associated with.
The world is moving more and more towards comfort, ease, and validation of one’s existing beliefs, thereby making empathy a low priority.
However, if we continue this way, we’ll only see more division and additional disastrous results (i.e. rising stress levels of workers in the US, riots in Capitol Hill, etc.).
Why Be Empathetic, Anyway?
Look, I could pull all the scientific research on why empathy is better for society, careers, and personal wellbeing, but I’m not gonna do that.
Because if you’re reading this you know in your core that empathy in action brings us together.
You know, at the deepest level of your being, that what’s right is to understand one another and care for one another.
You know, at the root of what makes you YOU, that putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and seeing life from their perspective is a GOOD thing.
I hope so, because if not, this article isn’t going to make sense to you.
So, how do you put empathy into action?
1. Be Intentional.
While we all have the capacity for empathy, it doesn’t mean we’ll always respond with empathy naturally.
We must be intentional.
This requires being aware of what’s fueling your actions day in and day out.
When you start your day, it’s helpful to begin with a practice that grounds you in empathy.
Bring to mind the people you plan on meeting with that day. Reflect on their wants and needs. Consider how someone else loves them dearly, and they have the same capacity for love and compassion as you do.
A simple exercise like this can help you to maintain empathy throughout the day.
2. Remember, Everyone Is Doing the Best They Can.
Think of someone you would consider a terrible leader.
Someone who has displayed incompetence over and over again.
What would you think if I were to tell you that…
They did the best that they could.
Would you respond by saying…
“What? How could you say that? They could’ve done SO MUCH better!”
With respect, you’re wrong.
How do I know?
Because given their limited information, their programming, their conditioning, their feelings at the time, their insecurities, their fears…
They did the best that they could.
Did it lead to a positive result?
However, you could not ask more of them considering what little information they had and the programming that they have running within them.
Should they be held accountable for poor actions?
Should we stand up against poor leadership and work to correct such behavior?
BUT, let’s not lose sight of empathy here.
You can still feel what they feel, right?
The human desire to be loved and to love others is still within them as it is within you.
While they may have made poor decisions and done things that harmed others, they were doing the best that they can.
And for that, we can maintain empathy for them.
3. Tap Into the Feelings They Feel.
A friend once said to me that there is someone in her life who is like a “dark cloud”, and everywhere they go they bring this dark cloud with them.
She was saying how hard it is to be around them, and she avoided them at all costs since it makes her feel awful.
In response, I said…
“Imagine what it’s like to be the dark cloud.”
When dealing with a difficult person, where it’s difficult to be empathetic towards them, I invite you to remember what it’s like to feel what they’re feeling.
If someone is unjustifiably angry with you.
If someone is acting irrationally and it’s harmful to others.
If someone is so negative that you can feel their energy as soon as they walk into a room.
Rather than be the judge of their behavior, take a moment to tap into what it’s like to feel what they feel.
It must be hard to be angry all the time.
It must be so difficult to act irrationally and be unaware of it.
It must be so challenging to constantly be negative and not know what to do about it.
What does that feel like?
It’s one thing to experience the “dark cloud”, but imagine BEING the “dark cloud”.
This mental shift allows you to tap into your empathy.
4. Let Go of Reason.
When I was a sales manager, I had an employee who despite multiple conversations, kept forgetting to update his accounts in our CRM.
To reprimand him, I sent him an email and CC’d the Director including the accounts he didn’t update.
He called me and he was very upset.
I learned a valuable lesson from this experience.
Although I may have had good reason to reprimand him since he wasn’t doing his job as outlined in the job description…
My actions lacked empathy and the result was him feeling ashamed, betrayed, and minimized by my email.
In the professional environment, we get so caught up in logic and reason that we forget that we are all emotional beings.
We can be so “matter of fact” with our communication that we don’t recognize how our words and actions impact how others feel.
After realizing my mistake, I sat with him in my office that same day, looked him in the eye, and apologized.
I told him I understood how he felt.
I understood that how he feels is what matters most, and I won’t let him down again.
We then went on to discuss updating those accounts and it was no longer an issue after that.
We must be willing to let go of reason.
If you want to go deeper, I really mean to let go of ego.
While we use our reason to consider what is the best action to take, we must let go of it in order to consider the impact our actions have on the feelings of another.
5. Move Towards Discomfort.
You know what’s easy?
- Only engaging with people who agree with everything that you say
- Only showing empathy to those you know, love, and trust
- Ignoring how others may feel and only focusing on what you think is right
You know what’s hard?
- Looking into the eyes of someone who opposes your beliefs, and thinking…“They want to be happy, just like me.”
- Looking past someone’s missteps and remembering that underneath it all, their wants and needs are not so different than your own
- Ignoring your logical justifications for why you’re right and focusing on how someone is feeling in the moment
- Acknowledging their feelings, and remembering that you too have once felt what they’re feeling now
I invite you to move into that discomfort.
Do what’s hard.
When you notice the resistance within you, and your mind is giving you every reason to ignore the urge to show empathy, I invite you to push through that resistance.
It’s gonna be uncomfortable.
But I promise you…
It’ll be worth it.
P.S. Looking to increase your capacity for empathy so you can be a more effective leader? Schedule a free clarity call (no sales pitch) to see if you’d be a good fit for our GROWTH accelerator program.