Embracing Empathy

Article submitted by Amy Sargent

Have you noticed your empathy has taken a turn for the worse over the past few months? Is it getting harder and harder to really care about others’ complaints and concerns? Do others seem way “off” in their beliefs and opinions? Are you hanging out less and less with those who are different than you? Do you find yourself rolling your eyes at people’s “drama” instead of responding with understanding? At a time when it is needed most, why is it so difficult to comprehend — and even value — the feelings and perspectives of others?

Empathy can be defined as the ability to sense what others are feeling, and take an active interest in their concerns. It’s about noticing how others are feeling, feeling it yourself, and taking action to support them through the tough times. Empathy is the capacity to know – emotionally – what another is experiencing, AND being able to express or communicate your understanding in return.

It’s a noble skillset, and something I’d guess we’d all like to have more of. Then why is it such a struggle?

Why don’t I care?

In her article, “3 Reasons Why Empathy is Hard“, Rujuta Pendharkar,  Founder and Principal at People Plus Results, points out that your genetic makeup, and the amount that you were nurtured and taught empathy as a child, may play a role in the struggle. If empathy was not modeled to you at a young age, it may be more difficult for you to exhibit empathy than those who were brought up in nurturing homes. Good news, though, lest you think it’s hopeless! Empathy, being a competency of emotional intelligence, can be developed, even if you got off to a bad start. So don’t let that be your excuse to tune out to others’ emotions and feelings.

Simple distraction may be yet another cause. We live in an age where options abound, and there are many voices demanding our time and attention. “Buy this, sign up for this, attend this, learn to do this, join this, add this…” — the push to do more and be more and accomplish more bombards us from all directions. Rujuta notes, “We’re living in the age of distraction. We’re probably the most distracted of all generations in human history.” Research by Ryan Dwyer points to the fact that modern technology, while wonderful in many ways, can sidetrack us from deepening relationships with family and friends. [https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/08/180810161553.htm]

Another factor that deters us from empathy may be that we have become overly self-absorbed. Can you believe there was a time when “selfies” were not a thing? Notice on social media how many times the words “I” and “me” are used. Online platforms instruct users to build online profiles, using photos and videos of themselves, touting accomplishments, achievements, and wins. We are given ample opportunity to share, brag, celebrate, show, and tell — about ourselves! Don’t get me wrong, it’s terrific to exhibit self-confidence and possess personal power…but not so much that we neglect and dismiss others. Rujuta goes on to say, “As a society, we’ve undergone a tectonic shift. We’re now about selfies, self-promotion, personal branding, and self-interest. Sometimes this comes at the cost of paying attention to others’ thoughts, feelings, needs, and concerns.” [https://www.peoplematters.in/blog/others/3-reasons-why-empathy-is-hard-26826]

“Self-absorption in all its forms kills empathy, let alone compassion. When we focus on ourselves, our world contracts as our problems and preoccupations loom large. But when we focus on others, our world expands. Our own problems drift to the periphery of the mind and so seem smaller, and we increase our capacity for connection – or compassionate action.”

— Daniel Goleman

Empathy and Stress

And don’t forget fatigue and stress. When we are tired, physically and emotionally, and experiencing chronic stress, it makes it tough to really care about what others are going through — and feel what they are feeling. Think back on the last time you were worn out. In that moment, how much energy did you have to pour into others? One study points out that those who are stress-prone are able to identify others’ emotions — exercising “cognitive empathy” — but that they weren’t so good at what scientists call “affective empathy”, or that ability to feel what others are feeling. [https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/what_is_the_relationship_between_stress_and_empathy]

Yet, stressful times are when empathy is needed most, especially for leaders. Quint Studer, in his article, “Why Empathy is the Most Important Skill a Leader Can Develop Right Now“, says, “When people are stressed and anxious, the ability to show empathy is the most important skill a leader can have. In hard times, building trust and engagement really matters, and empathy is the cornerstone of those connections.” When people feel listened to and understood at a deep emotional level, and when that understanding is acknowledged or communicated, people feel affirmed and validated. [https://thebusyleadershandbook.com/why-empathy-is-the-most-important-skill-a-leader-can-develop-right-now/]

Assessing your Empathy Skills

There are some tell-tale signs that your empathetic skills may need some work. Read the following statements, and see how many you agree with:

  • I find myself stereotyping people who are different than me
  • I do not understand why some people feel the way they do
  • Others’ strong emotions take me by surprise
  • I am finding myself in conflict with others more often than not
  • When I’m in conversation with others, I have a hard time reading what they are thinking and feeling.
  • I often do what is best for me without regard to how it may make others’ feel
  • Some say I come across as indifferent or uncaring

If you agree with any of the above, consider taking a step toward developing more empathy.

“Empathy has no script. There is no right way or wrong way to do it. It’s simply listening, holding space, withholding judgment, emotionally connecting, and communicating that incredibly healing message of ‘You’re not alone.’”

– Brene Brown

How to grow in empathy

The ability to empathize depends upon our ability to notice and identify our own emotions. A simple way to do this is to keep an Emotions Journal for a few weeks. Notice how you feel when you wake up, and try to name it specifically. Jot it down. Then notice how you feel as you get ready for work. Same thing — name it specifically, and write it down. Note how you’re feeling at lunch time. Then in the early afternoon. Then as you finish up your day. Notice your feelings in the evening, and before you go to bed. After a few weeks, notice any trends or patterns. Begin to attach a why to each emotion by asking yourself, “Why am I feeling this?” Try to withhold self-judgment as you do this exercise. Try not to label your emotions as good or bad — just notice them for what they are. If you need help, consider enlisting the help of a social and emotional intelligence coach to help you with self-awareness.

Once you are able to notice and label your own feelings, and starting to understand why you’re feeling what you’re feeling, you can now turn your attention to others. Becoming a good listener is key. There’s simply no way you’ll be able to feel the emotions of others and respond if you are not listening. Here are a few tips to tuning in to others in a more effective way:

  • Call out your Cynic. Cynicism and empathy do not play well together. Notice any hurtful behaviors you may exhibit toward others regularly, such as belittling, diminishing, rejecting, scorning, labeling, dismissing or ignoring. These behaviors make others feel invalidated and demoralized. You may exhibit these outwardly through words or behaviors, or may just be thinking them. Instead of shaming yourself when you notice your Cynic’s appearance, try saying, “There goes my Cynic again.” Then replace these invalidating thoughts, words, and behaviors with gratitude or appreciation if possible.
  • Make time for others. This means stopping what you’re doing to really listen — including putting down your phone. Stop. Stop walking. Stop typing. Stop thinking about what you need to do next, or what you’re going to say next. Stop, turn to face the person, and make eye contact. If now is not a good time to give your full attention, let them know that and schedule a later time to talk.
  • Attempt to pick up on the emotions that accompany words, and the whys behind them. Easier said than done, I know. But we so often get hung up on words (and which of us has never had something come out wrong or put our foot in our mouth?). When someone is speaks, ask yourself, “What is this person feeling? Why might they be feeling this way?” Notice their facial expressions. For example, when you ask them how they are, and they say “Fine”, can you see the flicker of pain in their eyes, or the fake smile they plaster on their face?
  • Adopt a “Me Too” attitude. When you notice someone else’s emotions, ask yourself if you’ve ever felt those same emotions.. You may not be feeling them right now, but surely you’ve felt that feeling before at some point in your life. Try to remember how it felt, and the why behind your own feelings. Though you may not feel that way on this particular issue, you can connect with them on the feeling itself.
  • Notice what underlying concerns the person may be trying to express. Often deep concerns are masked by annoying behaviors. For example, an over-attention to detail may indicate worry. An aggressive stance may be a fear of coming across weak. Bragging may indicate that they feel intimidated. Try to refrain judgment in these moments. Just notice what may really be going on behind the behaviors.
  • Acknowledge what you think you’ve heard with gratitude. After listening, paraphrase, repeat back, and clarify the emotions you think you are hearing (i.e., “Sounds like you’re feeling frustrated…am I hearing you right?”) Thank them for trusting you enough to share with you, to give you their time, to be vulnerable with you. Let them know how you appreciate them–even if you don’t agree with what they said or feel.

E.B. Johnson, in the article, “Why You Should Nurture Your Empathy Right Now“, says this, “Rather than allowing our apathy to set in, we have to learn how to understand our empathy and compassion and understand it in ways that empowers us to use it as a tool of change. If we want to overcome the pain and suffering of this modern world, we have to learn how to cultivate empathy in our lives and figure out how to relate to others in way that is both meaningful and lasting.”. [https://practicalgrowth.substack.com/p/why-empathy-is-important-2eb3d8c4f776]

Accepting and embracing the differences in others — in feelings, thoughts, perspectives, and behaviors — can be tough. You may be of the mindset of, “Wouldn’t it be easier if everyone just agreed with me?” And you’re right — it probably would be easier. But that is not how life works. Expressing empathy, despite the differences, provides fertile ground ripe for growth and learning. Comprehending and embracing those who are different is vital to harmonious living.

I don’t know if there’s ever been a time when empathy was needed more. What do you think? If you’re still not sure, consider giving it a try to find out.

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