I’ve written often about the need for and benefit of working well with others. This time around, I’d like to revisit this topic from a different perspective: empathy.
It’s defined as the ability to understand or identify with another person’s situation or feelings. You can empathize just by talking with the other person, and it’s facilitated by means of frequent eye contact and “soft” touches, such as shaking hands or lightly and briefly putting a hand on the other person’s arm or shoulder.
But contrary to popular understanding, empathy is not all good. The wrong approach to empathy can drain your energy, add to your stress level, promote unwarranted favoritism, and even paralyze or inhibit the kinds of direct action that actually increase joint productivity and success.
The right kind of empathy, however, is a major accelerant of productivity for a variety of reasons, including:
- It gets you on the same page with others, facilitating cooperation and shared goals.
- It helps you learn new things faster and better by seeing them through others’ eyes.
- It encourages and supports the team spirit that leads to stronger motivation and higher-level performances.
- It reduces or eliminates unnecessary conflict and miscommunication, leaving more time and energy for directly productive efforts.
- It promotes more nuanced judgments and conclusions, eliminating many of the black-and-white, shoot-from-the-hip attitudes and behaviors that too often interfere with productivity and success.
Here are a couple of ways to cultivate the right kind of empathy in your work and your life.
Don’t Walk in Their Shoes
The commonplace advice to promote empathy is something along the lines of “imagine yourself in their shoes.” But this is precisely the wrong approach to productive empathy.
Why? Because this kind of too-intense identification with other people can actually lead you to feel unnecessary stress, anxiety, and dismay that has nothing to do with your own situation.
The wrong kind of empathy is as inappropriate and uncomfortable as trying on the wrong sizes of clothes. And if you’re empathizing with a negative situation, the stress, anxiety, and dismay it brings on may come with the same kind of mental and emotional headaches you’d feel if you were actually in that situation.
Just Take Their Hand
Instead of internalizing the other person’s feelings, it’s better to keep your empathy more supportive in nature. Think of it as “taking their hand” instead of “walking in their shoes.”
You’re still trying to imagine the other person’s perspective and read their emotions, but you’re staying aware that the two of you are separate people with distinct lives. One result of this simply supportive approach is the feelings you experience while empathizing will seem far less threatening and disturbing than they otherwise might.
The difference can be remarkable.
- You can offer support, assistance, and advice like a friend or relative, and feel OK whether the other person accepts or rejects it, as they choose.
- You can reflect on the differences between the other person and you, as well as on the similarities.
- You can go home to your own situation and resume your own life whenever you choose.
Another advantage of the right kind of empathy is that it’s far less draining. This allows you the freedom to empathize more often, with more people, than if you were to try walking in the shoes of too many other people.
Because the right kind of empathy is less demanding to experience and endure, you may be willing not only to do more of it, but to make a stronger effort to get better at it.
Improve Your Empathy
Because the right kind of empathy can be rewarding in so many ways, you can consciously try to improve your empathic powers by:
- Asking more questions of other people, and listening deeply to their answers.
- Paying closer attention to the people you encounter, and trying to understand what drives them, what limits them, and how they go about trying to achieve their goals.
- Tuning into a broader range of people, particularly those who at first glance seem wildly different from you.
- Exposing yourself to new experiences, both in real life and also in books, films, and plays, in which well-written characters can stimulate insights into “universal truths” about humanity.
If you give this a try, you may find the right kind of empathy can become a source of pleasure and deeper relationships, as well as greater productivity and success.
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