Choose Empathy

Are some people more wired to be empathic than others?

If empathy is an ability to imagine oneself in another’s place and understand the other’s feelings, desires, ideas, and actions, then what’s the scoop on who can become more empathic?

In the past the prevailing view was that empathy was hard-wired; you either have it or you don’t.

However, a series of recent studies demonstrate that empathy is a choice. In a summary of recent research on empathy in the NY Times (July 10th 2015) authors Daryl Cameron, Michael Inzlicht, and William A Cunningham conclude,

“Empathy is only as limited as we choose it to be.”

Now when I am asked at the beginning of a coaching assignment, “Help this person lead more from the heart,” I do not believe that their empathy is a fixed feature of their personality. I begin to work for change right away with one caveat in mind,

the leader must want to change.

When people focus intentionally on becoming more empathic and repeatedly practice certain empathy building skills,

They change.

Simple empathy building steps may include,

  1. Putting a label on the feelings in the room. The team may be experiencing a lot of anger and frustration in the midst of a challenging project. Instead of ignoring the emotional elephant in the room the leader merely states, “I sense the frustration level to be very high right now!” He/she does not try to FIX the emotional state of the group but normalizes it by giving it a name. It is amazing how this action on the part of leaders helps people believe “our pain is understood”.
  1. Walking in the shoes of others. It is a know fact that the more senior and more powerful the leader is, the less likely he/she identifies with the pain of others. When executives remember what it was like when they were more junior they can see the perceived threats felt by their reports more realistically.
  1. Moving the focus away from the leader’s own needs and feelings. There is nothing more blinding to the needs of others than a preoccupation with our own agenda or ideas. Empathy involves a voluntary shift to the world of the other.

Try making the choice to be more empathic, repeatedly practice empathy building strategies, and watch yourself change.

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About cedricj

I am a licensed psychologist and management consultant and have always been intrigued by how leaders can inspire people in their organizations. The bottom line is that people are not always motivated by material rewards, the use of the carrot or the stick, fear and intimidation,and command and control, Five human needs inspire and drive us. Kristine S MacKain, Ph.D and myself describe these inspirational forces in our book "What Inspirational Leaders Do" (Kindle 2008)
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