Mastering Everyday Empathy

Everyone wants to be seen, heard and appreciated. Our brains contain special mirror neurons that give us the ability to sense what others feel. We can use these natural abilities to express empathy and appreciate others in everyday conversations.

In the work I do coaching leaders, we often work on improving persuasion skills through developing empathy first.

Authors Belle Linda Halpern and Kathy Lubar offer key guidelines for everyday empathy in Leadership Presence: Dramatic Techniques to Reach Out, Motivate, and Inspire (Gotham Books, 2004). They suggest three ways to improve your ability to work with others:

  1. Know what makes people tick.
  2. Link others’ feelings to your own.
  3. Practice expressing empathy, even with those you dislike.

The first step is to learn to ask questions and listen rather than focusing on your own messages. Once you improve your listening skills, here are some other guidelines that will help you to develop and express empathy:

  • Link others’ feelings to your own.
    Most of us share similar memories. We’ve taken part in parallel events and experienced universal emotions, allowing us to relate to one another. Find such commonalities when engaged in conversation with people. Of course, details and specifics will vary, so don’t assume you know exactly how someone else feels. Each of us processes experiences and emotions differently. Start by asking yourself: “If I had the same background as this person and found myself in the same situation, how would I feel?”

Many of us were brought up to believe we should leave our feelings at the door when we come to work. Brain research and economic studies have disproved this old chestnut. In reality, we need to experience feelings to make good decisions. Your challenge is to unlock your feelings at work in an appropriate fashion—one that ideally yields results.

  • Practice expressing empathy, even with those you dislike.
    Feelings can be a complex jumble, and conflicts among them can get in the way of experiencing and expressing empathy. If someone is angry and blames you for a given problem, your first response usually isn’t empathy.

    It’s impossible to connect and understand someone’s perspective at the height of conflict. You’re probably thinking, “I’m right, he’s wrong, and I have to prove I’m right.” But if you can take a deep breath and step back long enough to see the world through his eyes, you’ll have a greater chance of gaining ground.

Strong emotions like anger, fear and guilt block our efforts to empathize unless we accept these feelings as part of our fundamental emotional makeup. Be compassionate with, and learn to forgive, yourself. Only then can you extend the gifts of compassion and forgiveness to others.

You can always find something to appreciate about a person you dislike. Have the courage to find and express your appreciation. You’ll be surprised at the results.

Empathy requires you to find the humanity in someone else. Be willing to accept others’ weaknesses and imperfections, paving the way to authentic and potentially rewarding relationships.

What’s been your experience having empathic conversations? I’d love to hear from you. Contact me here if you think you could use some help expressing empathy with those around you.

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