Spirit Of EQ – Increasing Empathy
Eric Pennington: Welcome to The Spirit of EQ podcast. Today’s episode we’re going to talk about increasing empathy. With us, as always, is Jeff East. I’m very familiar with the word empathy. Powerful thing. But today we’re going to talk about increasing it. What does empathy mean? And how do we increase it?
Jeff East: These two words get mashed together and they really don’t have that much to do with each other. Sympathy and empathy. We get sympathy cards. We feel sympathetic towards someone. Sympathy is more of a surface emotion rather than something deep. Sympathy almost always means “I’m sorry you’re going through that (but I’m glad it’s not me).” When somebody shows sympathy they’re almost showing a position superior to the person, because they’re not sharing it. How often do we go to work and we ask “How are you doing today? Not so good. Well, I’m sorry.” And you go on about your business, but you can tell that there’s something wrong. Empathy is a lot deeper. Empathy is when you actually are putting yourself, as best you can, into that person’s shoes. You’re actually connecting with their emotions. It’s something that’s shared. It’s non-judgmental. When you’re dealing with empathy, you’re not going to tell the person that “You should have done it this way,” or “It’s not that bad.” That’s the last thing somebody that’s really feeling upset wants to hear. And to be open, to be truly empathetic, you need to be open to the other person. Be genuine and don’t hold anything back.
Eric: I would imagine that there’s a number of people hearing this would say, “Well, yeah, Jeff, I do that. I absolutely know how to put myself in their shoes.” An example for me is that I experienced a lot of corporate downsizing and eliminating of positions. So any time that someone tells me, or I hear about someone losing their job, I’m immediately drawn to that. “Hey, I know what that feels like.” And so how do we increase it? How do we increase empathy?
Jeff: One of the most important things we can do for someone is to listen to them. To actually give them your undivided attention. Put your phone down. If you’re at your desk, shut your laptop off, or turn your screen off. Give them your undivided attention and listen to them. And then sharing. Some people have a tendency to try to top their experience with your own.
Eric: Would that be like me drawing an example from my own life?
Jeff: In the prison ministry when we talk about listening, we have something called “me to-isms.” You don’t want to do that. You want to share the experience. But you don’t want to try to top their experience with your bad experience. That’s not why you’re there.
Eric: Because they’re the star of the show.
Jeff: Exactly. The star of the show, I like that. And then you respond in a way that shows concern. That doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to try to fix whatever it is. We have tendencies to try to do that. That’s not what you’re there for. There may be a chance for you to help the person in some way, but that’s not your primary goal. Your primary goal is to show them that somebody does really care about them. And there’s another little thing that I think is important. There’s also having empathy with something that’s good. Somebody had a birth of a child or has been cancer free for a year. Share in their good emotions, the positive emotions. And I think that is important also, to connect that same way.
Eric: That’s big Jeff. You’re right. The real positive stuff can sometimes be easy to just turn away from them. That’s really good advice. So I’ve got to ask you, one of the favorite stories from a previous episode. We talked a little bit about Winnie. And I know we have some regular listeners that may remember Winnie, but for those that may be just joining us for this episode, who is Winnie.
Jeff: Winnie is about a year and a half, maybe a two-year-old boxer-pit bull mix. She’s a rescue dog that we’ve had for about three months now. She’s exuberant. We call her our little trip hazard because she’s always getting under our feet because she’s so happy. But she is a lot like other dogs. Some people will disagree with this, but I’ve seen studies show that this is true. Dogs show empathy towards their owners or the people that they’re with. If we’ve had a bad day, and instead of doing all the running and jumping and all the things that she normally would do, she’ll come up and want to cuddle. She’s showing empathy. She’s not saying anything. She’s not telling me how to fix it. She’s not really asking me what’s going on. She’s just being there to comfort. And I think that’s what we miss in today’s society. There are not very many people that can do that for someone else. Just be there to comfort them. That’s why increasing empathy is important.
Eric: Does that go back to the “ME” oriented society? Be it politics, be it religion, be it just in general, this idea of being self-focused. Because I’ve got to imagine that if you’re very self-focused, it probably is pretty difficult to give somebody undivided attention. Would you agree?
Jeff: Yes. When you’re in a conversation with someone, what is going through your mind while you’re listening? Are you listening to the person? Or are you planning your response to what they’re saying? You can’t do both very well at the same time. You’re not being very empathetic. That’s the “ME.”
Eric: I think it’s important that we look at the idea of extremes again. Can you talk a little bit about that? The two different extremes in this area.
Jeff: Distant is where you are shut off from everybody. You may be in a room of people, a group of people, but you’re not connecting with them at all. You’re not really there for anyone. Even though they might be there for you, you’ve shut them off. You’re isolated. You ignore feelings. If you do start feeling some empathy for something, you stamp that down, because you don’t want to get involved. You don’t want to expose yourself. You don’t want to show weakness. You have trouble switching from feeling the emotions that are present, but you’re analyzing them in some way.
Eric: We’ve touched on it in other episodes, about the idea of awareness. And maybe self-awareness is the right way to say it. But I would say, in my own experiences, being around smart people, being around not so smart people, the majority of folks can read when someone doesn’t care. And I think that’s important for us to remember. Especially if we’re in this area of extremes. Because sometimes you can think that the person is not getting it. But most people can tell when you’re a disinterested party. So what about the other extreme?
Jeff: Entangled. I like that term. Exhibiting high empathy can be a hindrance to getting through life. Let’s say you’re a supervisor and you have a co-worker that is a great person, shows up for work every day. But they’re just not cut out for that job. They’re talented in other ways. But you don’t want to have the conversation. You know this isn’t working out. You’re not happy, your co-workers are not happy. You don’t want to have that conversation. So your empathy is keeping that person on. Maybe with some hope that they’ll change. And that’s probably not going to happen. So your high empathy is harming everyone. You’re harming the person’s co-workers. you’re harming them because they’re not happy. They’re not going to be able to grow. You know harming yourself because you’re dealing with all this stress. The co-workers are upset because they’re just not cut out for that job. Empathy can also hurt if you don’t let things flow. Sometimes in a situation, you might want to stop something uncomfortable from happening, but that might need to happen for the benefit of all involved, for growth.
Eric: That’s really, really difficult and very, very true.
Jeff: That happens a lot in families.
Eric: I can vouch for that.
Jeff: What we’ve been talking about is not just work stuff, it’s life stuff. Showing empathy in the workplace can also be just cutting that person some slack. Or you let them know you “I understand you’re going through a rough time. It’s OK.” That’s where empathy can be used the correct way.
Eric: What are the dangers here?.
Jeff: High empathy can make you vulnerable. Sometimes it can be physically vulnerable. You see someone along the side of the road and you want to help. It might put you in a physically dangerous situation. But it’s more of putting you in an emotionally dangerous situation where you don’t set any boundaries. And that’s ok. Boundaries are important. If you don’t have boundaries, you’re just going to be taken advantage of. So you need to couple your empathy with all the other competencies we’ve talked about. Recognizing your pattern. And maybe your pattern is “I’m not going to have the conversation with the person, so I’m just not going to do it.” So that high empathy coupled with a pattern of not having the conversation can hurt everybody. That’s the biggest danger is just making yourself vulnerable to things that aren’t positive.
Eric: Let’s look at some homework. What can our audience take away from today’s episode and maybe work on, that can help them increase their empathy?
Jeff: When I was thinking about this I was trying to come up with a safe way for people to do this.
Eric: That’s important. Safe is good.
Jeff: I would say, depending on your comfort level, try to connect with people different than you have in the past. If you’re already connecting on this kind of level, fine. But if you’re the normal person that when you know a co-worker, or somebody in your family, is not feeling well, just try to, however deeply you’re comfortable with, connect with them differently. Try the actual listening to what they’re saying. Try the non-judgemental part of it. Just do that and sometimes that’s all you need to do. And you might want to practice it just in your mind. Because this is one that can get you in trouble if you’re not careful.
Eric: There’s something that leaps out at me as you said that Jeff. The majority of people want to be heard right? They want to be listened to. And oftentimes especially if the situation is pretty deep, they realize that you’re not coming around to their cubicle, and going to fix the problem for them, right? But the idea of being heard is really important.
Jeff: Sometimes when people can talk it out with you, they find their own solution. That goes back to what we talked about in some of the learning philosophies. That wisdom comes from within that person. The person that’s going through this situation probably has what it takes to get them to where they want to be. but they just need to verbalize it. And they need to have somebody to bounce it off of.
Eric: And even if that means that just having a better outlook on a problem that maybe is not something that can be necessarily fixed, right? Coming to the end of this episode. As always great talking with you.
Jeff: I enjoyed it.
You can contact Jeff and Eric at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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