In a recent session we ran for a mwah. client, we asked a question to a room of very clever people.
What does it mean to be empathetic?
The question lingered in the air for a few brief seconds before the well-meaning extroverts in the room provided an answer. We landed on;
‘the experience of understanding another person’s thoughts, feelings and condition from their point of view, rather than from your own’.
Next question. Are we any good at it? A lengthy discussion ensues. There isn’t an easier answer to this one.
Are we any good at it?
It’s fair to say that most of us have a decent level of empathy when it comes to the big stuff. We have learnt through Soccer teams being trapped in caves, bush fires, tsunami’s, terror attacks and freak accidents – that when the big stuff happens, the best of our human spirit – empathy, kindness and generosity – comes easily to the surface.
Thankfully, the ‘big stuff’ doesn’t happen every day.
But a huge volume of ‘little’ or ‘moderate’ stuff does.
Perhaps it’s less visible, the signs a little harder to detect but nonetheless real.
The Little Stuff
The colleague who just isn’t as bubbly as normal after a rough night’s sleep; the one that had an argument with their partner or another who has had one of those days where everything went wrong.
You might not need to DO anything; but empathy means you notice. A small gesture, some kind words show you come from a place of care and understanding. This MATTER’s.
We see empathy falling on a continuum, with everyday life and the series of little ups and downs on one end; and on the other extreme are the big, life changing and traumatic events that (hopefully) don’t happen frequently. While there is no doubt it is important to be empathetic when the big stuff happens, the most positive impact we can make on each other is by demonstrating small acts of empathy, every single day.
Everyday empathy requires a mindset that understands sonder – that each person around us has a life as complex as our own. This mindset allows us to look beyond the immediate behaviour, and question why it is present, instead of using it to label the person forever more. And unlike most things in life, there is no power distance in empathy. It’s not bound by hierarchy, industry, age, gender or socio-economic status. It’s a deeply personal human to human connection, that genuinely seeks to understand each other, no matter what ‘hat’ the other person is wearing.
It’s not hyper empathy, and it’s not about taking on the world’s problems and making them your own (a phrase comes to mind- ‘not my Circus, not my Monkeys’). Nor is it about excusing bad behaviour and taking away personal accountability.
It is about taking the time to understand someone by standing in their shoes. This deep understanding of others creates infinite opportunities.
To be better leaders.
To be better team mates.
To get better things done.
To better support each other, without waiting for the ask for help to be uttered outloud.
Everyday empathy is inclusive. It doesn’t require sky high EQ, or special training (and really can empathy be taught?), or an app. It just requires thought. Thinking before reacting. Challenging our internal narrative. Not jumping to conclusions. Most importantly, valuing the experience of others as much as our own.
Whether it be big or small, most of us operate in a community where we are constantly interacting with others. While there is much discussion about where community actually fits in, in our increasingly individualistic lifestyle (there will be more on this in a future Making Work Absolutely Human – mwah. post), there is no doubt that our actions make an impact on those around us.
There is no need to wait for the next hurricane, land slide or gas leak. If you want to make the most positive impact you can, add a bit more focus to the next person you interact with, value their experience and pass the decent human test, every time.