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.

What is the best approach to dealing with “negative” emotions?

My approach, as a psychologist with 32 years of experience dealing with, and teaching others to deal with, emotions is a bit different than what you’ll get from most other sources.

First of all, I do not believe that there are any negative emotions.  To label something as “negative” is to imply that it should be eliminated.  As an example, you do not want a negative evaluation at work or a negative balance in your checkbook.

People label emotions such as anger as negative because they observe others who get angry, do bad things, and blame their anger for the bad behavior.  This is like blaming your smoke detector when it wakes you up in the middle of the night either because the battery is low or there is a fire.  The smoke detector is doing its job!

You have emotions because your emotions perform an important function for you which is to alert you to your surroundings and prepare you for action.  This function is the emotion’s job. From this point of view, all emotions are adaptive.  Your job is to learn what emotions are, what they do, and how you can master them to control your life.

Secondly, many writers talk about controlling your emotions.  While I do believe you need to control your actions, I do not talk about controlling your emotions. If you think about it, you do not control your computer (Yes, I know about programming the computer, but this is not what most of us do.), you learn how to master it so that it does what you want it to do.

That said, here are my recommendations:

I developed the Emotions as Tools Model (Emotions as Tools A Self Help Guide to Controlling Your Life not Your Feelings) to teach incarcerated young women (and others) how to adaptively interact with their emotions.

I suggest you master your emotions as tools to adaptively gain back control of your life.

Your emotions come from the way you  perceive the world around you and alert you to your perceptions.  This alert is the message of the emotion.

Once you learn to acknowledge the emotion and its message, you empower yourself to question the validity of the message and choose how you want to respond to it.

The message of anger is that you perceive a threat (to your goals, your values, your finances, your beliefs) that you can eliminate if you throw enough force at it.  Anger is a primitive emotion that exists in cultures around the world and in several non-human species.  When we get angry, the adrenalin flows and we are ready for action.  This is why a 5’5″ mom can lift a car off of her son.

The problem is that most people REACT instead of RESPOND to their anger and do dumb things. This is why anger is labelled a negative emotion. People blame the emotion for a person’s behavior rather than holding the person responsible.  While it is true that an emotion motivates an individual to act in a particular way, one always has a choice about what one does.

When you recognize that you are angry, stop and take a breath.  The purpose of the breath is to give you a second or two to take the next step. Taking a breath, reading a book, listening to music or any other distraction are not solutions to anger.

The next step is to question how valid (real) the threat is.

If the threat is to an important goal, asset, or value, take action.

If the threat is to your ego, your opinion, or some minor goal, then you can decide that there is no real threat and leave the situation, engage in conversation, or, at this point, try distraction.

This takes practice, but it is doable.

Next, let me address fear and anxiety as they are not the same.

Fear is a primitive, present based, emotion the message of which is that you are facing a threat that will kill you.  This is the “hair on the back of your neck” feeling.

When you experience fear, I recommend that you get away from the situation.  As an example, if you are about to enter an elevator and you get a creepy feeling about the guy standing there, take the next elevator regardless of whatever your logic tells you.  The best book on fear is Gavin deBecker’s book “The Gift of Fear”.

Anxiety is a future based emotion.  The message of anxiety is that there MAY be a threat and that the threat MAY “kill” me.

When you experience anxiety, assess the nature of the threat.  If the threat is something you need to take action on (my students studying for an exam, preparing for a job interview, or learning how to ask your boss for a raise), then ask yourself if you could survive the worst possible outcome.  If the answer is yes, take the action. This type of anxiety is called eustress and is motivating.

If the threat is not critical, is beyond your ability to influence, or is based on the  way you think things should be, then decide to let go of the anxiety and move on. This type of stress is called distress and is disabling. The anxiety will not immediately go away so you will have to remind yourself over and over to let go of it.

So, the best approach to dealing with “negative” emotions is to accept that there are no “negative” emotions and to learn to master the emotions as tools.

I welcome your comments on the above.

From T.E.A. to T.E.D.: My emotional wake-up calls. What will be yours?

In an earlier post, I talked about why it is in your best interest to learn to master your emotions. In thinking about this post, I thought I would put it into perspective.

While I call myself The Emotions Doctor (T.E.D.), today, growing up, the best description of me would have been The Emotions Avoider (T.E.A.).  I had a major wake-up call which made me realize that I was not mastering my emotions and using all of the important information my feelings made available to me. I had to learn to master my emotions.

Without going into a whole lot of detail, emotions in my family were not dealt with well.

My dad came from a generation in which feelings, with the possible exception of anger, were not expressed and may have been associated with weakness.  When he heard of my mom’s death and was moved to tears, he apologized to me for his display of emotion. Even anger was not expressed all that much by my dad and, when it was, the expression tended to be excessive and out of proportion to the precipitating event. I should mention that he was never abusive.

Emotionally, my dad was bland and unavailable. I learned from my dad that feelings, and especially anger, were to be tightly controlled.

My mom, while emotionally present, tended to focus on organizing what needed to be done.  I learned from her that emotions were not really important and were to be kept at bay in order to facilitate accomplishing the task at hand.

I should add that I am not blaming my parents for what they “taught” me about feelings.  They were good parents and did the best they could. Emotionally, they did what they were “taught” and passed on what they knew to me.

My way of dealing with feelings was to suppress them, go inside my head, and deal with issues cognitively. When feelings came up, as they did, I withdrew, thought things out on my own, decided what needed to be done, and did what I had to do. I was not able to use the message of my anger to energize action, use the message of my anxiety to energize a possible threat and formulate an effective plan, or utilize my grief to step back and mourn the loss of my pets who died.  Anger left me feeling weak instead of powerful.  Anxiety left me feeling inadequate. And, grief just sucked. I tried to accept what was happening to the best of my ability and move on.

My becoming The Emotions Doctor happened over many years and was the result of having to adapt to situations involving emotions which required me to grow. These were my emotional wake-up calls.

As a psychology intern without a drug problem but a desire to learn about dealing with substance abusers, I volunteered as a “participant-observer” in a residential alcoholic treatment program.  It took the group 6 months to break through my cognitive defenses and show me the anger and hurt I kept inside.  They called me a non-drinking alcoholic as I avoided my feelings with my books and my mind while they did it by self-medicating.

Working with young women at the California Youth Authority, if I was to be an effective therapist, I had to learn how to help them understand the feelings they held in regarding their own abuse and the serious crimes they had committed.  As a staff trainer, I had to learn how to help jaded correctional officers and, as a professional speaker, overly emotionally protected law-enforcement personnel, to understand what emotions were and how to deal with them. Professional integrity forced me to master my own emotions so that I could then focus on helping others master theirs. I developed the Emotions as Tools Model as a teaching aide. This is the topic of my first book Emotions as Tools: A Self Help Guide to Controlling Your Life not Your Feelings.

My focus on anger and my second book Beyond Anger Management: Master Your Anger as a Strategic Tool came about because I realized that this emotion is highly misunderstood and, if you look at the news, widely and inappropriately expressed.  Not only do people need to learn how to master their own anger but people need to learn, for self-defense, how to master the anger of others directed at them.

I don’t know what your emotional wake-up calls will be.  Maybe, your emotions will  result in you making  some bad decisions.  Maybe, your lack of emotional mastery will result in others taking advantage of you.  Or, maybe, you are here just to get some information.

Whatever the case is for you, I am glad that you are here.  My goal in this blog is to give you information which is designed to help you master your emotions hopefully before you have an emotional wake-up call or after, if that is how it is for you.

I welcome your comments.

Grief: What is it and how to master it.

In an earlier post, I mentioned that a very close friend of mine recently died. I, his family and all of his friends were impacted emotionally not only by the loss but by his unexpected (and probably preventable) death.

The emotions I felt were sadness (grief) due to the loss of my friend and anger because I believe he “should” not have died. Both feelings can be valid (appropriate) in the immediate response to loss.

Sadness and anger are both primary emotions  (mad, sad, glad, fear, disgust and surprise) which have existed since we lived in caves and that can be seen today in nearly all human species and some subhuman species.

Sadness is a short term emotion we experience in response to loss.

The message of sadness is that we have experienced a loss and we need to step back and allow ourselves to take some time and readjust to life without the object or person that is no longer with us or the situation, such as a relationship, that has been damaged beyond repair. We can be sad when we “lose” a favorite television program that has been cancelled, we break (or lose) a favorite vase, a friendship ends, or a friend, loved one, or pet dies.

The message of anger is that the situation we are facing is not right, someone is to blame for it, and we want to make it right. In the case of a death, we may be angry at the person who died, others who might have been able to prevent it from happening, ourselves for not doing more, God for taking our loved one away too soon, and so forth.

In response to a death, we experience grief which is a more intense form of sadness and which can be very painful.

This is a link to a very good article on grief which I highly recommend you read.

The emotion of grief can be overwhelming.  I cried and missed my friend. His wife lost sleep, wasn’t eating regularly, and needed the support of family 24/7 for several days.  All of this is quite normal.

You master grief when you validate it and allow yourself (or someone else) to experience it, accept the loss, and readjust to life

To validate your grief is to accept that this emotion, the emotional pain that comes with it, the emotional expression of tears, either wanting to have others around or wanting to be alone (or both), the sense of extreme loss or the sense that you won’t be able to go on because life as you know it has changed, and just about any other expression of grief are, in the short run, completely normal.

To master your grief is listen to the message that you need to take some time to step back, go through the emotional process, and readjust to life. This might involve letting others help you when you need that help, temporarily putting your life “on hold” when you can and, over time, making the adjustments, including acceptance, to get your life back on track.

This is also true if you are supporting someone else who is grieving.

When I was in the hospital room after my friend’s body was returned from surgery, his son was distraught and one of his aunts asked him, “Are you okay?”  When he struggled to say that he was okay, I whispered to him, “No, you are not okay. You are hurting and that is as it should be.”  While I know that his aunt meant well and she was trying to determine if the son was going to survive the event, it was not, in my opinion, the right question to be asking at that point in time  The potential problem with this question is it can put the grieving person in a psychological  bind. My friend’s son knew he was not “okay” and that he was struggling with his feelings about losing his dad. He did, however, want to answer his aunt  and reassure her.  The potential bind is between his need to experience his loss and reassure his aunt.  In my opinion, his aunt’s feelings at that point, while important to her, were irrelevant to him. I whispered my comment because I knew the aunt meant well and did not want to embarrass her.

All the aunt needed to say was that she was sorry for his loss and that she would be there for him to help him in whatever way she could.

Other things well meaning people say include, “He is in a better place.” or “He is no longer in pain.” and so forth. Again, these comments are meant to help soothe and comfort the grieving person but they tend to invalidate the mourner’s feelings. These comments may be very helpful at a later point in time.

You “master” the grief of another person when you validate their feelings, do not put them in a psychological bind where they need to be concerned about your feelings, express that you are sorry for their loss, offer to help in any way they might need you to help, and just be there with, and for, them.

If you are grieving along with the family members, that is understandable. In this case, you master your own grief, as I noted above, by validating your feelings and letting others, who can, help you.

Lastly, as the article in the link above discusses, you should seek professional help if your grief lasts more than a couple of weeks, , you feel that life is not worth living, or you can’t get your life back on track because your feelings are too overwhelming.

Thank you for reading.  I welcome any comments you may have.


The message of anger: It is more than just the perception of threat.

In an earlier post, I noted that all of the primary emotions, with the exception of glad (happiness) and surprise, were primitive threat detectors designed by evolution to insure our survival as a species.  The “job” of these primitive emotions was, and is, to alert us to the presence of, prepare our bodies to deal with, and motivate us to take any action necessary to eliminate the perceived threat. This is the fast track message from the senses to the amygdala. Each emotion has a different message.

Remember that the message of anger is that you perceive a threat that you believe you can eliminate if you throw enough force at it.  You see yourself in a situation where you, your values, your physical body, and so forth are vulnerable and you are prepared to go to war.

While this is true, there is a deeper component to the emotional message of anger that, while often overlooked, is crucial to both understanding and mastering emotion.  This is the cognitive component of moral judgement.

Here is how it works..

You get angry at something someone has done but you may not know what is it about their actions that has elicited your anger.  I say elicited and not “caused” as it is your perceptions of the situation that are the underlying cause of your emotions). The primary component underlying your anger is the perception of threat. Their actions have put something important to you at risk. You believe that your beliefs, your values, your goals, or your physical person are being attacked and are vulnerable and that they need to be defended.

Two other components underlying your anger is your perception that the other person’s action are:

  • wrong (You judge what they have done as violating your values.)


  • intentional (You believe that they have chosen to do what they did.).

Both of these elements are critical to anger.

If the other person’s actions are inappropriate or unlikable but not, in your judgement, wrong, you might choose to avoid the other person or comment on the behavior but there is no threat and, therefore, no anger.

If what the other person does is accidental, they are not aware of the impact their actions have had, or they are not directly responsible, for some reason, for what they have done, you might not like what they did and you may take action to correct it, but you do not interpret their actions as a choice they have made or as a threat and you are not angry.

Let’s take the example of someone who knocks over and breaks a lamp in your living room.

If the lamp goes down because that person accidentally hits it or because he, or she, is roughhousing with your kid and gets too close to the lamp, you may chide the person for being careless but you don’t hold onto or stay angry at them (If you get angry at all.). There is no threat to your values, you may think his actions are wrong because the lamp is broken, but there was no intention to break the lamp.

If, however, the person has consumed too much alcohol and angrily kicked the table with the lamp on it to “make a point”, “blow off some steam”, or avoid hitting you, your sense of right and wrong has been violated (the threat), a good lamp has inappropriately  been broken (His actions are wrong.), and he (or she) is directly responsible for what they did (He “chose”  to drink too much.).  All three components are in place and you are angry.

In both cases, the lamp has been broken but your feelings are different because of the intentions or underlying motives of the person who broke it.

A second example is that your boss publishes your work under his (or her) name. You get angry because taking credit for your work is a threat to and violates your sense of right and wrong and you know that your boss intentionally did not give you credit in the published report.

So how do you use this information to master your anger?

In my earlier post on anxiety, I talked about V.E.M.A (validate, examine, motivate, and act) as anti-anxiety techniques.  V.E.M.A. is a simplified, easy to remember, formula for dealing with all the primary emotions including anger. While I will discuss the whole (a bit more involved) anger mastery cycle in future posts, for now, let’s focus on V.E.M.A.

When you experience the anger, your first step (V) is to validate your emotion by acknowledging to yourself that you are angry and if your initial perceptions are correct, your anger is appropriate. You are giving yourself permission to be angry.  You have not yet decided what action to take.

What you do depends on the nature of the threat. This is the (E) examination step. Here is where the components of your anger perception are relevant.  If there is any  ambiguity or uncertainty regarding what the other person has done, you will need to determine if your initial perception that they have intentionally acted inappropriately is correct or you have misunderstood what, and why, they did what they did.

If you decide that they did choose to engage in behavior which is wrong, then the the perceived action is, indeed, intentional.  Thus, the action is a threat, is wrong and was intentional. You choose to remain angry and you can then use the energy of your anger to (M) motivate you to (A) take action.

I welcome your comments.