Lessons in Empathy from Hollywood

hollywoodArticle contributed by guest author Dawn Cook

Coming out of the theater after watching Schindler’s List, I couldn’t go home because I was too melancholy.  My friend and I both needed to go somewhere to shake off the somber feelings the movie stirred within us.  When you get to the end of the movie and you realize you were completely caught up in the story and feeling the emotions of the characters, you know that’s great acting. The Godfather, Shawshank Redemption, Forrest Gump and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest are other examples of great acting.  The actors got you to empathize with their characters.

 So how do they pull it off?  How do they draw you into their story?  They have to really get into the heads of their characters and understand their motives, thought processes and emotions.  They have to become the character in their minds.  Think Dustin Hoffman in Rainman or Sean Penn in I Am Sam. They totally embraced the character. That’s what I call deep empathy!

In the workplace, empathy is one of the most underutilized emotional intelligence skills, yet it’s potentially the most influential.  True empathy means not just putting yourself in someone else’s shoes or seeing it from their perspective; it’s really understanding what the other person is saying and feeling without judging it.  Do you think Marlon Brando balked at saying his line, “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse” because he judged it as unnecessary?  No, totally he owned it!

Too often we listen just long enough to get the gist of the issue and we jump in with our solution.  Today’s fast pace dictates we move quickly to solve and move on.  Unfortunately nobody told our brains that was the game plan.  If we don’t feel like we’ve been heard and understood and that the person really gets it, our brains sense a threat and we go into flight or fight mode.  It’s basic instinct. Essentially we will resist whatever solution they offer.  I was coaching a leader recently who said when his team brings him an issue, he listens for how it’s going to impact him and responds to that – and only that.  His team says he doesn’t really listen; he just jumps in with a solution.  The consequence?  The solution doesn’t address the entire issue and the team is frustrated.

Of course most any skill can become a weakness if overused.  This is true for empathy.  In the movie, A Streetcar Named Desire, Vivian Leigh, who played Blanche Du Bois – the character who had a mental breakdown in the story, empathized so deeply with her character that she had a mental breakdown herself not long after making the movie.  She thought she WAS Blanche Du Bois. So it is possible to have too much empathy.

At the office, showing too much empathy could look like not delegating to your team because you know they have a lot on their plates and you don’t want to overburden them.   Instead, you do the work yourself on evenings and weekends, leaving you with no work/life balance.

Hollywood’s lesson?  Be willing to fully empathize with others when you need to find solutions, address conflict, or influence outcomes.  But know when to draw the line on your personal boundaries.

Thank you for reading.  Make it an awesome day!

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