Empathy is one of those traits we think of as a gift – you have empathy, just as you have your father’s eyes and your mother’s wit. Empathy is a noun, a thing, a trait, or an emotion you feel deep in your gut. This can be true for people to whom empathy comes naturally, or in situations where empathy is easy. But often empathy is hard or distasteful – who wants to empathize with a bully, an abuser, or a self-centered jerk? In difficult situations, or with difficult people, sometimes empathy fails.
The thing is that empathy isn’t as fixed as eye color. It is mutable, changeable, and malleable. It can be treated as a skill, and grown. We can practice empathy, approaching it like a verb rather than a noun. Treat empathy as an action and you will have recourse to practice, growth, and improvement when empathy fails you.
Why would you even bother to build empathy for difficult people, especially in the workplace? Empathy helps us understand other people’s desires and motivations. It isn’t necessarily about feeling someone’s pain, or even feeling sympathy, but about insight: if you understand someone’s emotions you can manage them and get what you need out of your interactions, which is the key importance of empathy in leadership.
There are two major ways I think empathy comes into my work, at least. The first is in managing my relationships with colleagues at all levels. The second is in my technical work in health communication.
Empathy as a Management Skill: Understanding most of our colleagues most of the time is our standard setting for empathy. It gets us through most of our daily interactions with meetings, emails, and hallway conversations. It is the difficult situations – like the power struggles I wrote about earlier – where empathy could get us through if we were able to access it. But the kinds of emotions we feel in difficult situations often slam the door shut to empathy. Anger and contempt are both destroyers of empathy. It is hard to hold both anger and empathy for someone in our head at the same time. Try it: imagine the last time you were furious at someone, and how it felt to you. Did you feel much empathy? Try, in your mind, dispassionately dropping the anger and clinically imagining what that other person felt. It’s should be easier. Here are some other thoughts on how to access and practice empathy at work.
Make believe. Empathy and imagination are connected – while we experience empathy as an emotion, and imagination as conscious ideas, we can use imagination to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. First, do your best to consciously drop your anger or contempt. It may be justified, but it isn’t helpful for this exercise. Then imagine what the other person might be thinking and feeling. You don’t have to agree, validate, or enjoy it. Just imagine it. Identify what you think they might think or feel, and you can use that knowledge in management, negotiation, or feedback.
Mirror. If you find yourself sitting in your office after a difficult meeting going “what the hell just happened,” but you can’t identify what the other person was doing and feeling, you can try to understand by using your body. Our faces and bodies are connected to our emotion centers in our brains, and the connection goes both ways: what you feel shows in your face, but you can also make yourself fleetingly feel something by making a face. This is partly how empathy works in person. You can see it with little kids: if you scrunch up your face as if you are crying, a toddler will sometimes mirror you and truly cry. When you smile, they smile back. The mirroring and facial expression triggers the emotion. After a difficult interaction, try recreating the other person’s body language or facial expression – you may actually, for a moment, feel what they were feeling.
Ask. Pretty simple, really. Try not to sound too touchy-feely about it, but just ask: “That was a pretty difficult meeting yesterday. How did you feel about it? I didn’t understand how everyone at the table was feeling.”
Empathy in Technical Work: The programs I manage are health communication programs, largely. Good health communication programming requires deeply understanding people and communities that are radically different from you. You can’t make good decisions without understanding those people, and you can’t understand them with empathy alone, because you can’t know or imagine how someone in a different culture or context feels and understands things all the time – their responses to events and information might be very different than yours. So we replace personal empathy with science to understand other people’s emotions, desires, and motivations through research like surveys, focus groups, interviews, and structured observation. It’s kind of like AI for empathy.
Once we have used science (i.e. our intellect) to understand how other people see, understand, know, and feel, we can use our empathy again for the art of designing interventions. Once you know enough to envision someone else’s shoes, really understand the fit and feel and shape of those shoes, you can use your empathy to try them on.