Effective empathy

An article recently published in the Wall Street Journal (6-22-16) caught my attention.  The article, entitled “Companies Try New Strategy: Empathy”, quotes a study by Development Dimensions International which concluded that “Individuals who master listening and responding to others are the most successful leaders, and this skill outranks all others.”

This article especially caught my attention because of a post I published in the Connect:  Professional Woman’s Network on LinkedIn.  I asked the members of the network what they experienced when they appropriately expressed anger in their work settings. The majority of the 2000+ responses indicated that when a woman showed anger to highlight an injustice, she was maligned, denigrated and demeaned by her co-workers. Workplace empathy was not reflected in how these professional women were treated.

Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines Empathy as: “the feeling that you understand and share (emphasis added) another person’s experiences and emotions.” I call this true empathy as opposed to effective empathy.

The article gives an example of an exercise which experientially, approaches true empathy.  Ford Motor Company puts its vehicle designers in pregnancy suits in order to help them feel what it is like for a pregnant woman to ergonomically interact with a car’s design.

This exercise was effective because it put the male designers in the role of a  pregnant woman and, thereby, eliminated the barriers to empathy including the inability of a man to experience the world of a pregnant woman.

While these kinds of exercises are important, dealing with another person’s feelings (the goal of empathic training in a business setting) is a whole different matter.

The reason for this is that, when it comes to another person’s feelings, true empathy is impossible. There are at least two reasons for this. First of all, we cannot actually share another’s experience. Each individual’s interactions with the world are often complex, multifaceted and interpreted through that person’s unique set of filters which we do not share. Secondly, the nature of language is such that even a very good communicator, which most of us are not, often lacks the words to completely describe their experiences.

That being said, while true empathy is not possible, effective empathy (my words) is very possible.  I believe that the WSJ article is talking about effective empathy.

Working therapeutically with the young women in the California Department of Corrections-Juvenile Division was challenging because there were many barriers to establishing empathy.

Here is a partial list of these potential barriers to empathy:

  • History + Gender: Most of these women had histories of multiple abuse by men. I was both a male and I did not have a history of abuse.
  • Race: I was white and many of my female clients were women of color.
  • Language: Not only was there an educational gap between us but these young women had very little experience dealing with feelings or using emotional words. in other words, asking “How do you feel?” often elicited single word, not very informative, answers.

Establishing effective empathy, as I see it, involves being able to understand another person’s world from their point of view.  This involves three major steps.  First, you have to establish that you genuinely care enough to want to understand how they view their world. If you are only using key phrases and are not sincerely interested in connecting with the other person, your words will be perceived as hollow, you will not connect, and effective empathy will elude you.  Secondly, you need to know what emotions are and the messages each emotion conveys.  This information will aid you in gaining the understanding and empathy you seek and is what emotional mastery is all about.  Thirdly, you need to take the time and make the effort to both let them and, if necessary, help them tell you how they see their world. This is where you use your empathic language as well as other communication skills and emotional words to help the other person paint a verbal picture of their world and their concerns.

With my young female clients, my first step was to establish that I could not know how these young women experienced their world because I was clearly not one of them.  The second step was to apply the principles of emotional mastery as a context in which to begin to understand what these young women told me. Finally, the third step was to ask them to help me understand their world from their point of view.

While the actual training described in the Wall Street Journal article may address all three steps, the article, per se, only briefly touched upon step 3.

I will cover these three steps in more detail using different examples in future posts.

I welcome all of your questions and comments.

2 thoughts on “Effective empathy”

  1. I would like to express my appreciation to the writer for rescuing me from this type of predicament. Just after scouting through the internet and getting notions which are not powerful, I was thinking my entire life was well over. Living without the presence of solutions to the difficulties you’ve solved all through your main guideline is a critical case, as well as ones which may have in a negative way affected my career if I had not come across the website. Your main training and kindness in touching everything was vital. I am not sure what I would have done if I hadn’t discovered such a thing like this. It’s possible to now relish my future. Thanks for your time so much for this professional and results-oriented guide. I will not hesitate to refer your site to anybody who would need tips about this matter.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.