Awhile back, I decided to work with a personal trainer at my health club. I’ve been a swimmer for decades since a car accident long ago, and I’m an active person. However, I wanted to learn some new skills.
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, and sarcastically.
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.
Perfect, I thought. With a 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 said, “Right, empathy means you can feel what someone else is feeling, regardless of whether you agree with their perspective.”
She responded with a twinkle in her eye, “Aw, I’m so 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?” He responded, “The 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 is what enables us to form strong interpersonal connections to move anything positive forward.
However, misconceptions abound! Do recognize any of these?
- Empathy means you’re a nice person.
[Empathy] is not courteousness, good manners, and a pleasant tone of voice. It’s not generosity. And it isn’t about being deferential. Empathy is more challenging than that. Taking someone else’s perspective—the only real precondition to empathizing—requires us to stretch beyond our comfort zone in order to try and understand something or someone. This sort of stretching, even more so than run-of-the-mill kindness (which of course is important in its own right is exactly what we need more of in today’s workplace if we want to get the most out of our teams, our work, and ultimately ourselves.Empathy doesn’t mean “be nice” The Fast Company
2. Empathy is the same thing as sympathy.
Empathy fuels connection while sympathy drives disconnection…..Empathy is a choice and a vulnerable choice because in order to connect with you, I have to connect with something in myself that knows that feeling.Brene Brown on Empathy, Video, 2:53 Minutes
3. Empathy means we agree with the other person.
Actually, empathy means we can accurately articulate someone else’s viewpoint—without passing judgment. And, yes, it’s incredibly hard work. Practiced-natural, and a lifelong journey of focus on the other person’s subjective perspective.
At times the practice of empathy may seem absurd. Why on earth would you want to understand their perspective? What value could possibly be gained?
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 instead with the reality inside the other person’s head and heart.Stephen Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People
So how do we engage empathy?
Don’t tell, don’t fix, don’t judge, and don’t give advice (I know, it’s really hard). Instead, ask questions to deepen your conversation. Put into words your understanding of the other person’s perspective and emotions, even if you think their perspective is ridiculous: You sound frustrated, exhausted, worried, fed up, disappointed, by this situation.
Empathy is an EQ skill that will improve communication and outcomes in nearly every situation. (It even works for Chris Foss, a former FBI hostage negotiator, who terms it tactical empathy.) It can turn an adversarial conversation into a collaborative relationship, and it opens the door for problem-solving and solutions.
And it’s worth strengthening, whether you’re creating a trusting relationship, a trusting team—or as the Director of Personal Training.
Most of us would say we’re empathetic enough. However, the reality is that empathy will open up plenty more opportunities. And I do mean plenty.