Talking about the virtues of empathy is not the same as demonstrating it through our words and actions. It is no longer a “soft skill,” but an essential one as we all cope with the roller coaster of emotions associated with the dramatic disruption in our work and lives over the past ten months.  In the news and social media, you can find CEOs, community leaders, parents, and even a navy seal sharing the benefits they have gained from putting themselves in “other’s shoes.” The Army has introduced it as a necessary leadership attribute. Many op-ed column writers and news anchors will tell you who has it and who does not. Years of research on human behavior also reinforces that empathy leads to more open communication, greater trust, and productive conflict.

To read or talk about the value of observing and mirroring another person’s experience is a start, but it is not enough. It requires that we listen first and accept that understanding worlds and associated mindsets or feelings different from our own will never end.  As “no normal” continues in this uncertain, volatile world, empathy can go beyond our immediate circumstances to change mindsets about the fear of failure, solve problems, spark growth, and accelerate learning and innovation.

Are you ready to do more than enough? If you see possibility in testing new strategies to support your team, your friends, or family to bounce back and move ahead, here are some questions and techniques to build your empathy muscle:

  • Do you listen to others without interruption or defending your position? Do you acknowledge both the situation and the associated feelings? Avoid “I hear you” or launching into your own story. Otherwise, there is a risk of being judged as insincere. The effort becomes all about “you vs. them.” You cannot address feelings with facts alone. Logic cannot resolve matters of the heart.
  • Do you notice voice tone and body language? Do you openly share when you observe misaligned words with what you see and hear? If you have ever received a short, “it doesn’t matter” or a fine” from an employee or your partner in response to a question, do you clarify to avoid assumptions?  For example, “I know what fine means to me.”  “What does fine mean for you?” Your clarification presents an opportunity to tell the other person you are ready to understand, not judge or influence them.
  • Do you rush to an agreement to avoid conflict? “I know what you mean,” or saying nothing can put an end to mutual understanding and clarity on outcomes and solutions. You do not have to agree, especially if one’s experience is different from yours. You can show respect by valuing diverse thinking and feeling without sacrificing your authenticity. Confirming facts and emotions is all that is needed.
  • Do you use a blanket empathy response when addressing a situation with a team or large group? It Is unlikely they are all reacting in the same manner and for the same reasons. In this case, you will have to do some homework upfront, acknowledge the range of feelings, or seek out differences to move forward. By assuming everyone will have the same reaction, you miss resistance or silence the reluctant voices to offer their perspective.

And yes, there are also times when too much empathy has a negative impact. There are situations when you will need to lend support by offering resources and engagement in potential solutions. Like any good thing, empathy can be overused. Addressing the same issues repeatedly without empowering the employee, a team, or your child to help solve problems or change their circumstances can, over time, erode accountability and ownership with shared resentment on all sides. Here are some questions to make others part of the solution:

  • What would make you feel differently about this? What part can you play in making a change?
  • How can we broaden our perspective?
  • Is there another side we have not considered?
  • What are you afraid might happen?
  • What questions should I be asking you?

What new techniques will you try to make empathy more than a buzzword?   How will you encourage others to do the same? Why not start by sharing this article and discussing it with others..