Research reported in Scientific American suggests that our levels of empathy, or the ability to understand the feelings of others, are lower today than 30 years ago. An increase in social isolation is one theory used to explain this finding. Digital communication, social networking, video conferencing and other forms of new media contribute to social isolation and are often blamed for the reduction in empathy. After all, as Simon Kempton has previously highlighted, it's much easier to say negative things about others if you don't have to say it to their face. And if I don't feel like engaging in your problems, I can simply log off, or even 'unfriend' you. It's an easy option.
The trouble is that, when there is no empathy, when we don't work to understand the needs of others, there is a significant loss of trust. If I don't really know what you're thinking and feeling I trust you less, and isolate myself more. This can have major implications for business where trust is essential for successful leadership and partnerships. This is also not just within work but is also with our communities, our own families and society as whole.
It is easy in a work environment where we are led by action to allow other people’s feelings to be discarded. However, to build connections and a culture that is kind, we must be able to sit in the moment with someone and really listen to how they feel with no judgement over and over again.
As I have stated previously, we are not the same, we are not meant to be. It does mean that people whose opinions differ from our own should judged, but we need to find a way to accept and be open-minded about the differences.
Psychologists Daniel Goleman and Paul Ekman break down the concept of empathy into the following three categories.
Cognitive empathy is being able to understand how another person feels and what they might be thinking. Having high cognitive empathy makes us better communicators, because it helps us give information in a way that the other person is able to understand. Like speaking the language of that person.
Emotional empathy (also known as affective empathy) means being able to share and understand the feelings of someone else. Some have called it ‘your pain in my heart’. This type of empathy helps build emotional connections with others. It’s when someone tells you a sad story and you weep with them not because it makes you sad but because you feel their pain.
Compassionate empathy (also known as empathic concern) goes beyond simply understanding others and sharing their feelings: it actually moves us to take action, to help however we can.
To illustrate how these three branches of empathy work together, imagine that a friend has recently lost a close family member. Your natural reaction may be sympathy, a feeling of pity, or sorrow. Sympathy may move you to express condolences or to send a card, and your friend may appreciate these actions.
They say that we work through these stages of empathy, to first understand the person, to then feel what they feel and then eventually to be compelled to take action.
Empathy can be challenging when we feel so consumed in our own stories, when we can’t bear to look at another’s sadness or upset. However we need to simply learn to sit in the moment with the person and say, 'I hear you and I am here'.
Role play with people when they first start in the company is a great way to develop this. However, first show people good and bad examples of people having a bad day, get people in your company to act it out. Let your new recruits be their partners’ person they have gone to and allow them to respond. Allow them to feedback on themselves first and then the partner who is having a bad day. We can and should be teaching what empathy really looks like. Don't expect everyone to know.
Consider how to grow each element of the empathy.
Building cognitive empathy
Consider what you know about the person you are listening to. Communication can often be misinterpreted, and instincts can be wrong. Spend time with people testing this ability and make it a strength.
Building emotional empathy
When a person shares with you how they feel about something or when something that is bothering them. It is important to be able to take time to reflect. Once you have a better understanding of how that person might feel you are better able to relate and be present.
A great way to practice this emotional empathy is to ask yourself, when have I felt similar to this person?
Exercising compassionate empathy
A great question to ask yourself when considering the action part of the empathy stage is, what would have helped me in this situation? What would I appreciate right now if I were them? Take yourself back to the ‘In their shoes exercise’. Although remember, comparison is not compassionate. No one wants to hear you’ve had it happen but 1,000 times worse.
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