Last week, I finally decided to work with a personal trainer at my health club. I’ve been a swimmer since a car accident decades ago – it’s like giving the Tin Man oil. But now it’s time for supervised gym workouts.
We began in a small room where I stepped onto a machine to measure my muscle strength. My trainer stood next to me, and behind me was a woman at a desk. When my weight popped up on the machine, I said to my trainer, “Oh, this is good! It’s tough to keep my weight up when I’m really busy.” (He should know and understand this stuff, right?)
The woman suddenly piped in, “Oh, poor you—life must be so hard.” She said it teasingly, but there was a whiff of sarcasm in her voice.
Because we hadn’t been introduced—and because it’s a health club (and I’m talking about my health for heaven’s sake)—I responded rather curtly: “Well that’s not very empathetic. You could use some practice building that skill.”
She responded, “I’m plenty empathetic in plenty of ways.”
And I lobbed back: “Empathy means you can understand what someone else is feeling, whether or not you’ve experienced it yourself—or if it even makes sense to you.”
The machine completed its computing and I stepped off the scale to face her. She said, “You look familiar to me; where do you work?” I said I have my own company, and she wanted to know what I do…
With a big grin I looked her straight in the eye and said, “I work with individuals and teams on developing emotional intelligence.”
At this she burst out laughing, and I leaned forward and repeated, “Right, empathy means you can feel what someone else is feeling, regardless of whether you agree with their perspective.”
I’m laughing by this time, but also a little pissed. It didn’t help when she said with a twinkle in her eye, “I’m sorry I hurt your feelings.”
To which I responded—with the same twinkle—“No you’re not, but I appreciate the apology anyway.”
To which she let out a big, long laugh.
As we left the room, I asked my trainer, “Who is she?” And he responded, “Director of Personal Training.”
All I could say was “Ouch.”
There’s nothing that will shut down and block a connection like a lack of empathy. It’s one of the most powerful and misunderstood emotional intelligence skills. Empathy enables us to form strong interpersonal connections. (Read more here.)
However, according to authors Stein and Book in the EQ Edge (2011), there are three frequent misconceptions about empathy:
- Empathy is about being nice. (Therefore the Director of Personal Trainer apologized for hurting my feelings.) Nope. While being nice creates pleasant conversation, it does not create deeper connections.
- Empathy means sympathy. Nope. Sympathy is feeling the emotion for someone, and while caring, it doesn’t have the power to take the conversation deeper. (I am so sorry to hear this; My condolences, etc.)
- Empathy means we agree with the other person. Nope. Empathy means we can accurately articulate someone else’s viewpoint – without passing judgement.
Oh yeah. Empathy takes a lifetime of practice, particularly when we’re triggered in a conversation.
So what’s the takeaway here? Again, from authors Stein and Book:
Focus on the other person’s subjective perspective.
As Stephen Covey writes:
“Empathetic listening is so powerful because it gives you accurate data to work with. Instead of projecting your own autobiography and assuming thoughts, feelings, motives and interpretations, you are dealing with the reality inside the other person’s head and heart.” p. 140
Ask questions to deepen your conversation. (Read more here.) Put into words your understanding of the other person’s perspective and emotions, even if you think their perspective is ridiculous: You sound frustrated…worried…exhausted…fed up… by this situation.
Empathy is a fine interpersonal skill that improves communication in any situation. It can turn an adversarial conversation into collaborative relationships, and it opens the door for problem-solving and solutions.
And it’s worth strengthening, whether you’re creating a trusting relationship, developing an effective team—or in charge of building a lucrative personal training business.
Most of us would say we are empathetic enough. However, the reality is that empathy will open up plenty more opportunities. And I do mean plenty.