How we show up and are in relationship with others is an ongoing journey of self-reflection, self-awareness, and stepping into confident vulnerability with others. The best we can hope for is to continually improve our ability and capacity to step into another’s shoes — to see the world from their perspective and reflect that back to them. Almost daily I find myself failing and being successful on this journey. But, perfection is not the goal. Continual self-improvement in being ‘right’ with relationships is the target.
Everyone wants to be seen, heard and appreciated. Our brains contain special mirror neurons that give us the ability to sense what others feel. We can use these natural abilities to express empathy and appreciate others in everyday conversations.
In the coaching I do with leaders, we often work on improving influencing skills through developing empathy first.
Authors Belle Linda Halpern and Kathy Lubar offer key guidelines for everyday empathy in Leadership Presence: Dramatic Techniques to Reach Out, Motivate, and Inspire (Gotham Books, 2004).
They suggest three ways to improve your ability to work with others:
1. Know what makes people tick.
2. Link others’ feeling to your own.
3. Practice expressing empathy, even with those you dislike.
In last week’s post, I wrote about the importance of asking questions about other people to get to know them better. Here are suggestions on the other guidelines.
Link others’ feelings to your own.
Most of us share similar memories. We’ve taken part in parallel events and experienced universal emotions, allowing us to relate to one another. Find such commonalities when engaged in conversation with people. Of course, details and specifics will vary, so don’t assume you know exactly how someone else feels. Each of us processes experiences and emotions differently. Start by asking yourself: “If I had the same background as this person and found myself in the same situation, how would I feel?”
Many of us were brought up to believe we should leave our feelings at the door when we come to work. Brain research and economic studies have disproved this old chestnut. In reality, we need to experience feelings to build trust and make good decisions. In an appropriate fashion, your challenge is to expose your feelings at work in a confident and vulnerable way — one that ideally connects with others.
Practice expressing empathy, even with those you dislike.
Feelings can be a complex jumble, and conflicts among them can get in the way of experiencing and expressing empathy. If someone is angry and blames you for a given problem, your first response is usually defensiveness not empathy.
It is impossible to connect with and understand someone’s perspective at the height of conflict. You are probably thinking, “I am right, he is wrong, and I will prove I am right.” But if you take a deep breath and step back long enough to see the world through his eyes, you will have stepped out of judgment opening up the space to have a greater chance of authentic connection.
Strong emotions like anger, fear and guilt block our efforts to empathize unless we accept these feelings as part of our fundamental humanness. Be compassionate with, and learn to forgive yourself first. Only then can you extend the gifts of compassion, grace and forgiveness to others.
You can always find something to appreciate about a person you dislike. Have the courage to find and express your appreciation. You will be surprised at the results.
Empathy requires you to find the humanity in someone else. Be willing to accept others’ weaknesses and imperfections, paving the way to authentic and rewarding relationships.