November 21, 2018

Lesson #9: Empathy — Do You Feel What Others Feel?

Your ability to understand what others are feeling is vital to leading them to success. If you can’t empathize, then you can’t be compassionate for the plight of others.

A common mistake is to confuse empathy with sympathy. Empathy is a deeper connection to the situation where sympathy is just the recognition of another persons suffering or situation. When you empathize, you put yourself into another persons shoes while with sympathy you recognize but don’t experience, what the event is like.

The distinction appears subtle but the impact on leadership is profound.

Empathy and Leadership

The reason empathy is a powerful leadership skill is because it helps the leader deeply understand what people are going through. By experiencing the situation at the same level, you are much better equipped to judge what will be an effective course of action. Without empathy, you will seem out of touch or worst not connected to reality.

That’s why it’s important for a leader to get out and feel the situation. You see this a lot during natural disasters where the regional minister, governor, prime minster or president will take a tour of the area. At first glance, this may appear as a public relations stunt but the true leader wants to get a taste of the hardship, suffering and destruction so they can better deal with the crisis.

Gaining the Right Perspective

Someone who can empathize with a person or group’s situation has a unique perspective. They can understand why a certain event, feature or situation resonates with those affected. This perspective means that the decisions made are more informed.

A leader must be careful that the feelings, reactions and thoughts are truly related to the other person or group and not how they themselves would react. It’s another one of those subtle concepts that makes a difference because you are trying to understand the feelings, motivations, reactions and thoughts of someone else — not yourself.

To help guide you, consider the following checklist that will help separate your feelings from those of others:

  1. Do you have personal experience? Personal experiences can cloud our judgements but they are also vital for empathy. Learning to recall the experience will give you deeper understanding while staying impartial will make you feel it more.

  2. Do you know all the details? Most times, lots and lots of details are lacking or the details are only one sided. Seek out the details and facts so that the situation is clear in your mind.

  3. Do you feel pity for the person or situation? Pity is different than empathy (see below). Feeling sorry for someone is fine but it can distance you from the real feeling of empathy.

  4. Are other people you know effected? Personal relationships can also cloud your judgement. It’s inevitable that you will have an opinion or feelings on a person or situation but that may trick you into false interpretations. Try to stay impartial.

Separating your reaction from those of others will take some practice. It’s a skill that takes a tremendous amount of patience and willpower but worth it.

Once you start to understand how others will react to a situation while also feeling what it’s like to experience it, you will make better decisions. Even when leading yourself, being able to take yourself out of the interaction and put yourself in someones else’s place will teach you how your own emotions and reactions influence your decisions.

A Tale of Two Generals

General George S. Patton and General Omar N. Bradley were both US general in World War II. Bradley severed under Patton in North Africa but later came to command the allied invasion of Europe (D-Day) over Patton.

Patton was a brilliant and flamboyant general. His strategies were bold and sometimes reckless, which got him the nicknames “old blood and guts.” He was also vocal and would publicly criticize his boss, General Eisenhower, for siding too much with the British.

Bradley was known as the “GI’s General” because of his gentleness towards his people. Even though he had some of the same issues with Eisenhower as Patton, he kept his criticisms private and through the normal chain of command.

The major characteristic that distinguishes these two generals is that Bradley understood that every man has a breaking point while Patton thought that anyone who did not want to fight was just a coward.

Nothing exemplifies this more than the notorious “slap” incident that lead to Patton’s reduction in rank and his exclusion for commander of the invasion of Europe (D-Day).

Patton was touring a hospital for the wounded when he came upon a solder that had no broken bones or blood but just sat there and cried. Upon inquiry, the solder told him that his “nerves” were getting to him. That set Patton off.

He repeatedly slapped the private, knocking his helmet off and berated him for being a coward. If that were not enough, Patton even bragged about how he treated the man to snap him out of being a coward.

No matter your opinion on cowardly acts, it’s clear that Patton had no empathy for the solder while Bradley’s “compassion” made him understand the solider’s under his command. This lack of empathy and his boldness made Patton a brilliant field general but someone who was unreliable and sometimes unstable.

Building Empathy

A lot of people have the misconception that you are born with empathy. Some even go as far as saying, “well, I’m just not a people person.” That’s crazy.

Humans are social animals. We crave the attention of others and want to feel part of a group or culture. The small minority of us who don’t like to be around people are either mentally ill or have had experiences that make them fear connection.

Being able to empathize can break down that fear by realizing that each and every one of us has hopes, dreams, anxieties, fears or phobias. Building up your empathy will allow you to not only lead others but empathy gives you a deeper understanding of yourself.

Empathy is something you can get better at. All it takes, as usual, is practice and a keen awareness of your own emotions in situations. To help you build or expand your empathy, try some of the techniques below:

  • Volunteer for those in need: Interacting with others in need can give you a birds eye view of their situation which is a great way to understand a situation.

  • Teach, mentor or coach: By teaching, mentoring or coaching, you can see first hand how others struggle with concepts and ideas. This will make it easier for you to either improve the situation or make recommendations.

  • Interview others: First person accounts are some of the best ways to empathize. By learning from people directly effected by the event or situation, you gain a deeper knowledge of how they feel.

  • Study history: History teaches us a lot about ourselves and society. By learning about events that caused or influenced other events will give you valuable insights into why people behave like they do.

  • Travel: Getting out of your home town and seeing the world can help give you perspective. Nothing drives home a history lesson or personal account like visiting the site of the event.

  • Spend time in different cultures: Understanding culture and it’s effects on people will allow you to step into an experience with the proper background. Knowing just a little bit about the culture will allow you to be more empathetic.

  • Struggle, just a little: Struggle teaches us a lot about ourselves. It’s also a great way to practice empathy because struggle is one of the most empathic events anyone has to deal with.

  • Interact with different generations: All generations have a story and culture that defines it. From the Greatest Generation to the (Echo Boomers)[], there is a common bond, language and experience that make them empathize in different ways.

  • Share a meal: A simple meals is a great way to interact and have shared experiences. You can learn a lot from eating with people you know and don’t know.

Empathy is one of those skills that takes direct interaction to really be effective. You can certainly read about events and places that are in need of help, poor or ravaged by war. Reading about those situations will give you a sense of what people go through but to truly emphasize requires either the exact experience or something similar.

I’m not suggesting that you travel to a war torn country or put yourself in harms way. All I’m suggesting is that you should experience as much as you can so that you have a rich experience base to tap into.

Empathy is Different Than Pity

Exploring empathy can naturally lead to increased feelings of pity for others. Pity is the feeling of sympathy and sorrow aroused by the misfortune of others. It’s different than empathy in that pity detaches you while empathy involves you in the situation.

Feeling pity means you can commiserate with the person and want to give them relief for their suffering. Pity means your above the situation while empathy means you are right there in the trench with them.

Always try to “get in the trench” with the person or group so you can see the situation from their perspective. By doing this, you can better help solve whatever situation you find yourself in.

Take-a-way: Always try to see a situation from other peoples perspective. Try and be “in the trench” with them

Things to Ponder

  1. Take the empathy quotient test in the exploring further section. How did you do? What does it tell you about what you need to work on?

  2. Research a historic event you find fascinating. Find as much 1st person accounts as you can. Try and put yourself in the scene by writing a narrative about the event with yourself inserted into it.

  3. Go to a new ethnic restaurant, preferably one that’s family owned. Ask the waiter for recommendations. Learn about why the food is the way it is.

  4. Volunteer for a worthwhile cause for a single day. Write a couple of paragraphs about your experience. Can you relate to how the people you helped feel and react?

  5. Identify something that will make you struggle to complete. Attempt to complete the task or event. Pay particular attention to your feelings and attitudes when you struggle. Write a paragraph about how you feel.

  6. Visit a memorial to a great conflict or atrocity. Think about how the event came about. Research who was involved, on both sides. Write a paragraph or two on why you think it happened.

Exploring Further

This post is part of a series called Leading from Within, a FREE course on how to lead your most important supporter — you. If you landed here via other means (like Google, Twitter or a friend), you can learn more about the course and sign up here.