Empathy really does matter… and it’s certainly not a case of, you either have it or you don’t. Believe it or not, empathy can be learned, and anyone who can balance empathy and compassion, with logic and reason, really has it made!
Empathy is an essential element in understanding other people. It involves putting ourselves in their shoes, submerging ourselves in their world, in order to truly get to grips with their feelings, thoughts and experiences. It is the total antithesis of focusing on one’s own sense of entitlement and will be a tough one to pull off if you’re not that good at dealing with your own feelings. (If this applies to you, before attempting to develop your empathy muscles, it may be wiser to start with enhancing your self-awareness instead!?!)
Gaining an insight into the needs of your team, colleagues, family, friends, partner, neighbours and strangers alike… in fact, anyone you want to be able to connect with in an instant, and then have a deeper, more meaningful relationship, the power of empathy cannot be emphasized enough.
Sympathy is NOT empathy and lies in the world of the rescuer, where helping others is actually more about making themselves feel good, as harsh as this may sound. A cup of tea, with lots of so-called helpful advice from the rescuer’s point of view, does not show empathy. Being busy, and doing lots of practical stuff, whilst helpful in one way, actually highlights an absence of empathy and can even be counter-productive. It has nothing to do with what we need to “do”, and absolutely everything to do with how we need to “be”. A gentle arm around our shoulders, an attentive pair of ears, without our having to say a word, sitting in silence together, allowing the feelings to flow for however long it takes – these are the things we see when empathy is in action.
If you want to practise EMPATHY, here are a few ways to go about it:
- Focused listening – this enables us to understand the motivations behind the words. Be present and pay attention to the tone of the person’s voice without taking anything personally. Become aware of their body language and the context of their communication. It’s never about the words alone – if you think it is, simply ask them to send you a report and don’t bother listening at all!
- Show gratitude – tell people that you value them for being who they are, not just for what they do. Make it come from the heart. Be grateful that they are in your life. Speak with genuine sincerity, not just with the usual “thank you” because you were brought up to be polite, but because you mean it. Focus on making the experience of interacting with you a smooth one, however difficult the moment may be.
- Be proactive – anticipate the challenges and address them before they turn into problems. Avoiding conflict is passive behaviour and, at best, achieves nothing – at worst, it’s the same as hiding everything under the carpet, leading to an almighty list of misunderstandings for the future. If you care about the relationship, it’s vital you take things on headfirst. If you pussy-foot around people for fear of rejection, of offending them or upsetting the status quo, waiting for them to take the initiative, then nothing will change. Set the example, take the risk – you have so much to gain, and plenty to lose, otherwise.
Conflict needs to be seen as a growth opportunity. It is a fact of life and, therefore, needs to be taken on board as the norm. Fearing it is pointless as we are all designed to be different. We simply do not grow and never learn from our experiences if we keep conflict away.
Anger or hostility disrupts empathy, so it is with the vital ingredient of compassion that we are able to manage the conflict effectively. Only with empathy, by putting ourselves in the other’s shoes, can we avoid irreparable damage to the relationship, while working through the conflict.
Please don’t learn it the hard way – empathy is so important for bonding with all the key people in your life. We, none of us have forever, so make it count, as of NOW, right now! There really is no time like the present.
Wishing you all much love and happiness on your individual and respective EMPATHY journeys!