Attempting empathy

Are you as considerate as you think you are?  Empathy is widely identified as an essential skill, whether personal or professional.  It is also identified as the sort of soft skill that is often lacking where it is most needed.  Dan Pink, who writes some really good stuff, has something to say about it in this article.

My situation recently made me try to put my empathy skills to the test.  Although I’m now a big fan of turbulence (as I gushed in a previous blog on uncertainty), change is nevertheless unsettling, and can gnaw at me in my weak moments.  And more importantly, it can gnaw at my loved ones too.

I have always liked to think that I am an empathiser.  Of course I am!  I am a nice person, and it just happens naturally, right?

Wrong.  One day my wife commented how difficult it was to explain (justify?) our new circumstances to other people.  So I asked myself, can I, a supposed empathiser, empathise with my own wife?  I set about a task, and wrote a list.  3 lists actually:

  1. What is my wife seeing happen in her life right now?
  2. How might that be making her feel?
  3. What can I do to make her feel better?

It felt like a very refreshing and healthy exercise, and it suggested to me a number of things:

  • It is wrong to assume I automatically have the correct insights: I have to find them, even when it’s my own wife
  • It is easy to satisfy myself with glossing over the surface and not getting to the root of understanding how someone feels
  • My conclusions were often wrong, but the fact that she knew I was trying was vastly more important
  • Taking the step of discussing it and listening to her got me to the right place
  • Within a week, the exercise in empathy was stale and I needed to empathise again.  It cannot be treated as an “exercise”

I have always acknowledged that empathy is vital for everyone, to make relationships work well.  It appears that only recently have I begun to appreciate that it really is HARD!!


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