We appear to be living in a world that grows more adversarial every day—just take a look at social media, TV, politics, or your last contentious project meeting. We’ve become so fixated on what divides us that we walk around in a constant state of emotional hijack—bothered, stressed, angry, worried, and unwilling to lay down our shields for a moment to see a situation from another’s standpoint or tune in to what someone else might be thinking.
We are so frazzled that even the slightest difference opens a chasm wider than the Grand Canyon between people. Thoughtlessly, we defend entrenched positions and talk past each other in anticipation of an attack by the other person. Attacking, demeaning, and scoring points trumps listening for understanding, recognizing, and valuing another’s point of view. Our public and private dialogue swiftly descend into name-calling, insult-hurling, table-flipping madness. Each side escalates in lockstep punches and counterpunches, rapid-fire accusations fly, and no one can be heard since they are all shouting over each other. Nothing ever gets resolved.
In recent months, I’ve often wondered: Where has all the empathy gone?
Regretfully, it appears that, for the most part, we’ve lost any semblance of our capacity to call upon this essential and powerful tool. If there is any expectation of reversing course, we must resist becoming antagonistic and combative, and respond with empathy rather than antipathy, despite the storm swirling around us.
Reconnecting with our capacity for empathy means first getting really clear about what it is and is not. Once we’re really clear on that, we can then pivot and spike our empathy EQ.
What Is Empathy And What It’s Not
Empathy is simply defined as “The ability to be aware of, understand, and appreciate the feelings and thoughts of others. Empathy is tuning in to what, how, and why people feel and think the way they do and being able to emotionally read other people.”
What empathy isn’t can sometimes prove even more useful. Empathy has nothing to do with being agreeable, polite, or even nice to people. It isn’t about your impressions, feelings, or thoughts about the circumstances at the heart of the conversation—that would be sympathy. And it certainly isn’t about acquiescing or being in agreement with the other person.
These time-tested strategies are vital in grasping what another person’s perspective is, along with what they are thinking and feeling—particularly when it’s dramatically different from your own vantage point.
Remain Cool Amid The Fury
When pushed to our limits, we all can lose our cool, temper, and focus. It doesn’t take long to go from being mildly upset to being in an all-out rage, and we can cross the threshold without being aware that we are anywhere near it. Remaining cool amid the fury starts with:
- Understanding Your Emotional Triggers – These hot buttons, when pushed, will trigger intense emotional responses in you. Have some preset responses that you’ve practiced and can call upon when confronted with a trigger to diffuse that stress and give you time to regroup.
- Take Your Emotional Temperature Periodically – Recognize how you’re feeling physically, your internal self-talk, and your non-verbals (expressions, motions, and posture). Any changes that indicate you’re less focused and more agitated are your early warning signs that you’ve got to be more conscious and considered in what you’re saying and doing. Slow down the pace and start listening more than speaking until the heat dissipates or diffuses.
Being Neutral Isn’t The Goal
Neutrality might be prized in most situations—except when we are talking about empathy. Empathy is about anything but being neutral. In fact, it necessitates being absolutely focused on the subjective vantage point of the other person and how they experience the world. Seeing the world from another’s vantage point isn’t always easy. Getting it right means doing two things extremely well: listening and asking questions that unearth the information you need to see their model of the world.
- Listening, as Mark Goulston says, like a PAL – with purpose and without an agenda gives you the information you need to work with. You’ll see how the other person sees and experiences the world and their circumstances. Done well, it influences your responses and supports you in being of service to the other person. The sense of connectedness from listening like a PAL diffuses the emotionality and tension that otherwise might exist.
- Asking questions that go beyond the superficial details unearths what is truly driving the person’s actions and how they perceive the matter at hand. You can’t discern the complexity of what they are thinking any other way. Questions that move past the superficial facts and generate deeper levels of thinking on the part of the other person often lead to revelations that will help you respond in a more empathetic way.
However, developing one’s listening and questioning abilities isn’t all that it takes to be more empathetic. Being able to express empathetically what you’ve heard involves not only listening and asking the types of questions that elicit informative responses but also becoming adept at tuning in to emotions and feelings that accompany those words and thoughts.
Banish “I” From The Beginning Of Your Statements
Pretending that you don’t even know the word “I” can begin a statement where empathy is concerned. Beginning with “I” makes it all about you: your thoughts, your sentiments, and how you’re feeling, along with your opinions, your perceptions, and your biases and judgments. Empathy is about acknowledging and recognizing the existence of another’s viewpoint without rendering a judgment or trying to persuade them to consider an alternative perspective at the moment. The power of empathy lies in the building of a shared experience of their perspective, validating their right to hold it, and requiring no need on their part to defend it to you.
We all have a choice to make: to offset the tension and choose to be more empathetic and less divisive.
Are you willing to do what it takes to stand in someone else’s shoes, see the world with their eyes, and understand their perspective—even if you don’t agree with it or even if you find it outlandish? If so, share your past experiences or how you would attempt to do this below.