Effective Empathy- Step 2 and 3

In my last post, I talked about step 1 to establishing effective empathy and noted that you need to both be aware of and overcome the barriers to empathy which might exist between you and the person with whom you are trying to communicate.  These barriers act as filters through which what you say is interpreted and, often, misunderstood. Taking the time to interact with another person and find the common ground that you share begins to set up the foundation from which empathy is built.

Step 2 involves using your knowledge about emotions to provide you with a context for your interactions with the other person.  Step 3 involves showing the other person that you do understand their point of view.  You do this by communicating that you are aware of and acknowledge the barriers that exist between you. You also need to validate their feelings about the issue that both of you are trying to resolve.  This is what “understanding” is all about.

If the other person does not feel that they are being understood, you can’t establish that you care about them or that you understand them, both of which are critical to establishing empathy.

You demonstrate that you understand another person’s point of view when you address the message of the emotion they are showing you.  This is what emotional mastery is all about.

The emotion you see in the other person is based on their perception of the situation in which they find themselves.  This is the emotional process which I addressed in earlier posts. Each emotion communicates a different message.  When you understand the message of the emotion, you can address the concerns of the other person.

The message of the basic emotions are as follows:

  • Anger: I perceive a threat which I believe I can eliminate if I throw enough force at it.
  • Anxiety: I perceive a possible threat in the future that MAY hurt me.
  • Guilt: I have done something wrong that I need to make right.
  • Regret: I either did (or did not) do something that led to a negative outcome that I am powerless to correct.
  • Sad: I have lost something or someone who was very important to me.

I addressed anxiety and anger in earlier posts and I will address regret in a future post.

If a person is angry with you, you “master” their emotion and establish empathy by attempting to determine the threat they perceive.  Are you the threat?  Is a new policy the threat?  Has something changed in the work setting?  You might say, “I can see that you are angry.”  This is the beginning of empathy but does not establish effective empathy.

To be effective, you need to add, “Can you help me understand what it is that you are so angry about?”

When they tell you the object of their anger and you realize that this situation is perceived as a threat, you can then work with them to eliminate the perceived threat in such a way that both of you get what you want.

This is exactly the opposite of what happened when professional women expressed anger about a situation in their work settings and the men in that setting demeaned them and marginalized them. The men appeared to feel threatened by the women’s assertive behavior.

I have tried to give you a basic foundation for establishing effective empathy.  If you would like a more indepth discussion of this issue or a point I have made is not clear, let me know in the comments section.

Barriers to effective empathy

Remember that effective empathy involves being able to understand another person’s world from their point of view.

Recall also, that there are three steps to establishing effective empathy. The three steps are: 1. Establish that you genuinely care enough to want to understand how the other person sees the world, 2. Use your knowledge of emotional mastery as a basis for your empathic communications. and 3. Take the time to let them help you understand how they see their world (and you, as part of that world).

Barriers to effective empathy include differences between you and the other person which could act as filters which prohibit you from understanding how they see their world as well as any “language deficits” which might distort the messages (either from you to them or vice versa) being communicated.

You may experience barriers as you attempt to establish that you genuinely care in step 1 and in step 3 as you attempt to be empathic.

In my last post, I mentioned some of the barriers to empathy that I had to overcome with the young incarcerated women including history and gender, race, and language. All three were critical.  As a white middle class doctor with no history of incarceration, I was clearly different from my clients in appearance, language, and experience.

Given the correctional setting in which I worked, my client’s (correct based on their experience) view of men as abusive, untrustworthy and, often, dangerous, and my graduate school based language, any words I used which implied that I either cared about or understood these young women would come across as empty, insincere, and unlikely. I overcame these barriers by clearly stating that I could not know their world, clearly stating that I wanted to help them and needed their help in order to do this, being consistent in the boundaries I set and the statements I made, and learning to communicate in a manner (using emotional explanations and examples and asking lots of questions) that was non threatening and easy to understand.

I was successful with these young women because I was able to establish that we shared a common interest or, at least, a common ground. The client wanted to get out and stay out of “jail” and I wanted to help them do this.  They needed my help and I needed them to help me be able to work with them.

Step 1 to overcoming barriers is to establish, over time, that you and the person with whom you are communicating either share common goals or share a common ground from which both of you can achieve your goals either as a “win-win” or through compromise and that you are interested in helping them achieve (as much as possible) their goals.

In a work setting, those goals might be to improve the office working environment, build a more successful business, improve worker satisfaction and productivity, be recognized for one’s contributions, and so forth.  Sharing common goals or a common ground does not mean that management and workers, or even co-workers, always agree or see goals in the same light. Indeed, the WSJ article notes the importance of “acknowledg(ing) emotions and hold(ing) employees accountable”. The implication is that a goal (perhaps improving accountability) might be obtained by empathizing with, finding out the concerns of, and ultimately helping the employee become more accountable. The manager wants more accountability and the employee wants to be heard and appreciated.  Accountability will follow being heard and appreciated.

If the goals of the employee are emotionally driven, you will need to understand what emotion, or emotions, are driving the individual and the message of the emotions being displayed.  This is the information of emotional mastery and it is this information that becomes the foundation of the empathic language you can use to overcome the emotional barriers that confront you. This is step 2.

I will continue this discussion in my next posting.



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.