Empathy: A Magic Elixir

When I wrote We’ve Got This on Medium last week about my grief at my business tanking, I received some amazing empathy from colleagues, friends, strangers, and family. Thank you! I also saw and felt some serious empathy misses, which caused all the feelings.

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When I wrote We’ve Got This on Medium last week about my grief at my business tanking, I received some amazing empathy from colleagues, friends, strangers, and family. Thank you!

I also saw and felt some serious empathy misses, which caused all the feelings. For example:

 “That is so sad for you. Oh boy.”

I felt the need to tell them I was okay.

 “Have you tried_______?”

I felt the urge to tell them I had lots of plans in motion.

 “Well, at least you don’t have COVID!”

I felt exposed and stupid for whining about what is hard for me.

I appreciate the effort of those who missed on empathy and offer here some ideas for using empathy with more care and clarity. I fail at empathy all the time (just ask my kids!) but empathy is a practice I expect to keep getting better at forever.

I know in my bones that empathy alone is enough.

Empathy is feeling with, not feeling bad for. It results in people feeling seen and connected. It is a skill that can be learned and improved. 

As a coach/consultant (and colleague, mother, wife, sister, daughter, and friend!), I believe that empathy is the most important arrow in our partnership and relationship quiver. It activates all the good feelings within and reminds us that we can solve our own problems.  It creates space for showing up, as we are, both perfect and flawed.

The rub is we can’t fake empathy. It needs to be real, so we have to feel with another. Theresa Wiseman , a nursing scholar, offers four steps for empathy:

  1. Perspective taking: believing that how the other person sees things is true for them. It is seeing their perspective as real for them. Hard is hard.
  2. Staying out of judgement: resisting the urge to form an opinion about what is right or wrong, good or bad, about how they see the situation. We simply don’t judge the person or how they see it.
  3. Recognizing emotion: tuning in to what we imagine they are feeling. Connecting that feeling to when we have felt similarly. We may never have experienced what they are describing, but we have surely felt the emotion.
  4. Naming emotion: Taking a guess at stating the emotion until we get it right. Bringing it out of the dark into the space between us.

Please note: there is no Step 5. Step 5 is NOT problem-solving or jumping in with an opinion what they should do.  Problem-solving disrupts the magic of empathy and often triggers the shameful feeling: “they do not think I am capable of solving this problem for myself.”

Leaders who are good problem solvers (who isn’t?) often ask me when they can offer help if someone looks like they really need it. My answer? You can help when someone asks. Not one second before. Remember, empathy is THE THING.  The whole thing.

Empathy is not:

Fix it: “What will help is…”

Advice: “I think you should…”

Interrogate: “How did it happen?”

Explain: “This happened because…”

Correct: “That is not how it was…”

Educate: “You can learn from this…”

Console: “It wasn’t your fault.”

Commiserate: “He did that to you? What a jerk!”

One Up: “You should here what happened to me…”

Tell Tale: “That reminds me of the time…”

Evaluate: “If you hadn’t done that…”

Sympathize: “”You poor thing. I feel awful for you.”

I have come to think of empathy as a golden elixir.  When I manage to actually show it to someone on my team or in my family who needs to be seen, the result is magical. They lift their eyes, their body language shifts, they take deeper breathes, and almost always they say thank you. 

It is like I have administered a magical potion that reduces shame, conveys care, and invites possibility. As humans, we are complex and messy. But I have yet to meet a person who does not respond well to empathy. It activates the best we have to offer as humans and draws us closer to one another in myriad ways.

To the active, fixer leader, empathy can feel like we are doing nothing. But here is what we are doing:  we are holding space. We are seeing their perspective. We are believing them. We are NOT judging or solving. We are connecting what they are feeling to our own experience of that emotion.  We are seeing. We are feeling with.

Empathy is everything during times like this when we feel vulnerable, anxious, and scared.

Practice it today. I am doing the same.

Check Out Dear Boss, our short video about empathy at work. And the healthcare version that inspired us from the Cleveland Clinic HERE. Also, this awesome RSA short with Dr. Brene´Brown.

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