This Thing Called ‘Empathy’

Articles and up-dates from leadership firms, thinkers and influencers, and LinkedIn feeds highlight how crisis leaders have empathy and now is the time to be empathetic.

Casually, we might think it is our ability to ‘feel your pain’ or be sensitive to the needs of others. We might even say something like that. “Oh, I feel stressed too.” “Oh, I understand your stress – I can’t pay my rent either…” or “I am going to be sensitive to your needs and extend the deadline”. This is NOT empathy.

But what is it, and how does one do ‘empathy’?

Empathy is listening for meaning and remaining free of one’s own story, viewpoint, biases and judgments. It fundamentally requires you to do something that is very difficult – to set aside your own feelings and views. It is listening to the feeling behind what someone is saying and experiencing and importantly it is releasing ourselves from talking our way into their psychological space and re-directing the energy to our self.

It isn’t: “I feel your pain” – you don’t. I feel my pain, you feel your pain. Saying “I know” is not empathetic. It is an interruption. Imagine this dialogue:

  • Speaker says: “working from home is stressful for me.”
  •  Listener says: “oh, I know! It is stressful for me too.”

What happened? Speaker has made a statement about what they feel, but there has been no clarification or exploration of their experience. Then the listener has drawn their own conclusion from their own experience and says, “I know”. This preempts the speaker and re-directs the focus to the listener who then adds “it is stressful for me too” which now completes the shift.

What empathy sounds like:

Speaker says: “working from home is stressful for me.”

Listener says: “I can hear the stress in your voice. (acknowledges the feeling); How does the stress show-up for you?; Can you describe what aspects are stressful? (focus on exploring the speaker’s experience)

Empathy over the phone or on-line is difficult but not impossible. Difficult because when we are in person, we can get a much better sense of how to be comfortable with silence. On the phone or on-line, it is difficult to be comfortable with silence. But we need to use silence – be comfortable with allowing reflection space. You can say “let me be silent for a moment”; “I am ready to continue once you have thought about what you want to say so I will be silent for a moment”; “And, what else?”

The listener is being empathetic.

link for Mentoring resources see: Essentials for Mentors, module 4:

Coming next: Tips for Remote Mentoring – The Emotions that are hard to deal with: Fear, Anger, Sadness
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