Empathy: Why it matters & How to do it

Empathy is a fantastic buzz word in today’s world. It will sometimes masquerade as “Managing Up”, “playing office politics” or “always knowing the right thing to say”, but the reality is that we’re talking about understanding people. Not in a manipulative, Machiavellian sense, where an all-seeing, always conniving chess master sits at the table and moves pawns around, but in a deeply visceral and emotional sense, of knowing how another person is experiencing the world.

That’s the Empathy that is so highly valued in politics and business, and that is so incredibly rare. You know it’s rare because it often shows up in job descriptions. We don’t think to ask for something until it’s in short supply. We don’t typically mention that we want a manager who reads above a 7th grade level, but we do want someone who can manage a team with empathetic understanding. And businesses spend a ton of money trying to identify, foster or outright train empathy in employees.

Why? Because it works. The most effective sales person you ever meet is the one who understands what you want from the get-go. The most successful politician is the one who understands what your life is like and can speak to the issues that matter the most to you, even if you can’t put them into word yourself.

But if you look at the business and political landscapes, it’s clear that we (as a society) should get a failing grade on any test of empathy. We generally don’t foster it in education, professional training or in career advancement. Too often, the winners in life are the ones who look out for #1 and manipulate the system to serve themselves. Most politicians can talk the talk (Donald Trump is definitely speaking to something in the experience of white, working class America), but they’re not converting that understanding into better dialogue or working conditions.

But why should that matter to you? Because Empathy is the ultimate personal responsibility. When a crisis occurs, a decision needs to be made or an argument breaks out, do you dwell on your own priorities or do you try to find an outcome where everyone wins?

The temptation to look out for ourselves is strong, and for much of human history, it was vitally important that we do so. But we now live in an extraordinary age. In 90% of situations, we’re not operating in a zero sum situation. If I get what I want from a situation, it doesn’t mean you’re losing. Most situations have some level of win-win outcome open as a possibility. But how do we get there?

  1. See opponents as people first

It’s awfully easy to be self-centered when we’re the good guy. If your initial reaction is to see someone else (doesn’t matter if it’s a stranger, your boss or your spouse) as the bad guy, you’ve already started down the wrong path. If the other side if morally corrupt or hopelessly misguided, it’s easy to justify whatever we want. So first you have to recognize that even someone you vehemently disagree with is a person. They believe what they believe for reasons. They may be misinformed or misguided, but they’re not doing it just to be evil or to spite you.

2. Don’t look for middle-ground — look for sidelines

A common negotiation tip is to find the middle ground, but that often falls apart outside of financial negotiations. Where is the middle ground between a pro-lifer that opposes abortion in any form and a pro-choice advocate that refuses to acknowledge any limitations on a woman’s right to choose? There is none. Those views are necessarily diametrically opposed.

But what if we change the conversation. Step off the battle-field for a second, get some water and think about everyone’s motivations. We all care about people’s lives. Both sides hold their opinions for reasons. They both believe that their position is going to make someone’s life better. Neither side wants undue suffering for any mother or child. If we can seek those areas of agreement first, we can approach our disagreements with better blood between us.

3. Never be afraid to say “I don’t know, but I want to understand”

Have you ever gone through a tough time and had someone say, “Man, I know what it must be like.” Usually, all you can think is, “No, you don’t. You have no idea what it’s like to [Fill in the blank]”. They don’t know what it’s like to lose a parent or lose a job or just get chewed out by a boss on an already rough day. And even if they’ve been somewhere similar, knowing that they know doesn’t help us. A situation still hurts or frustrates us, whether someone else gets it or not.

So don’t try to sympathize and exercise pity on them, try to really see from their point of view. They almost certainly don’t want to hear about your experience in that moment. They want someone to listen, so listen. And be ready to admit when you don’t understand, but promise that you’ll listen and learn.

Empathy is an amazing tool. It greases the wheels of relationships and helps build stronger bonds. We tend to trust those who are most like ourselves, so when you feel that someone truly gets you on a human level, it’s easy to trust them. But the powerful thing about empathy is that when it’s actually practiced, it can’t be manipulative. As your learn what those around you want and feel, you’ll be trying to step into their shoes and see the world through their eyes. It’s hard to do that and then not love them in at least some small way.

Professional Amateur & Avid Question Asker

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