Are you really listening, or just waiting until YOU can talk?
We need empathy more than ever
Empathy is the ability to sense other people’s emotions, and also imagine what they are thinking and feeling. It’s a fundamental skill that enables us to walk in the other person’s shoes.
At this point in time, we especially need empathy. Empathy can be an antidote to our hyper-political polarization—how many of us actually listen and respond thoughtfully to people who have different views than we do? It is a salve for the tensions, anxieties, and fears that the current health and economic crises provoke on a daily basis.
Empathy costs you nothing, but is priceless to the other person.CLICK TO TWEETOften, it’s the only thing you can offer. Right now, for example, there are many people in need—but we can’t always do something for them. Recently, tragically, the sister of someone we know quite well in New York City just died of COVID-19. I feel helpless, but I have empathized with him and expressed how deeply we feel for his loss.
Empathizing and listening to someone in need may seem like a small thing, but I find many people are afraid to do it—or, they feel awkward and say nothing.
If we can empathize effectively, we’re able to better understand the character, motivations, and values of the people we work with. And, so importantly, it shows we care about the other person.
Have you ever felt this way about someone: “They really get me!” Well, that’s a common and positive reaction when the other person has done a good job empathizing with you.
Empathy, in short, enables us to form deep, meaningful personal and professional relationships, and respond to others in appropriate and effective ways.
Studies of identical twins show that your ability to empathize is partly learned, and partly something you are born with. But regardless of whether it’s from nurture or nature, there’s strong evidence that with intentional practice, you can improve your empathy.
Lack of empathy can destroy relationships. At best, people who can’t empathize are considered tone-deaf and insensitive to others. At worst, some extreme cases might be diagnosed as severely narcissistic or even sociopathic.
There are four main foundations of empathy: An interest in others, self-awareness, humility, and listening skills.
An Interest in Others
This quality of being interested in others also enhances your likability—which is one of the three drivers of rapport. So don’t underestimate how important this first foundation is for not just empathy but other relationship-building skills as well.
Second, to empathize you must be self-aware. You must understand your own hot buttons and emotional triggers. To accurately tune into others you have to be calm and collected, not a cauldron of emotions.
Self-awareness means understanding your biases. Studies have shown, for example, that African-Americans, especially women, receive less good healthcare from doctors compared to Caucasian patients or even males in general. What’s behind this? They aren’t sure…but it probably has to do with not listening as effectively to certain types of patients and taking them less seriously.
Recently, my wife and one of our daughters flew cross-country using first class tickets I bought using my trove of frequent flyer miles. As she approached the first class check-in counter with my daughter, however, the agent waved her hand at her and said, sharply, “No, the economy line is over THERE.”
She insulted my wife and treated her terribly, obviously believing that only middle-aged men in business suits travel in first class! Biases, whether conscious or unconscious, can prevent you from being able to empathize and listen properly.
Third, you need humility to empathize with others. If you think you know everything and have all the answers already, your willingness to hear what the other person has to say and learn from them will be severely impaired.
Not surprisingly, author Jim Collins, in his massive bestseller Good to Great, identified humility as an essential characteristic of the most successful “Level Five” leaders he studied for his acclaimed book.
Finally, and fourth, you need strong listening skills.Are you really listening, or just biding your time until you can talk again? That means affirming the other person, summarizing/synthesizing what they’ve said, asking good follow-up questions, eliminating distractions, and using your body language to show you are listening.