Empathy Is A Skill, Not A Feeling – The Empathy Equation

It is widely acknowledged that the ability to empathize is the basis for all productive relationships. It goes without saying in personal relationships empathy is the glue that keeps us together. In business empathy is essential for collaboration, inspiration, and innovation. And today we need empathy more than ever as we attempt to bridge the gap of understanding between disparate political, social, and racial groups. 

Do you think of yourself as empathetic? Before you answer, consider this:     

In defining empathy, the distinction is frequently made between sympathy and empathy.  And, while that distinction is important, it doesn’t help us understand how to cultivate empathy or determine if we are really empathizing.  

The only way to have true empathy is to begin with curiosity. So-called “empathy” without curiosity is merely projection. 

Projection is the psychological term that refers to the universal tendency of people to attribute to others what is in their own minds.  We see ourselves in others. This is the basis for empathy, but it can also be the basis of hatred! When we are unaware of our own negative feelings, we can sometimes imagine we see them in other people.  For example, the cheater who imagines he is always being cheated. Or more benignly, imagining we understand someone else’s pain because we, too, have felt pain in what we think is a similar situation.

So, how do we know if we are really being empathetic or merely projecting? 

By using the Empathy Equation.  Empathy = Projection + Curiosity

The only way to harvest the empathetic benefits of projection and avoid the possible misunderstanding and distortions of projection is to cultivate curiosity. 

  1. Assume the beginner’s mind; assume that you know nothing about the other person. Whatever you do know about them, it is likely to create biases and expectations that may or may not apply. 
  2. Imagine they came from another planet with language, culture and traditions that are quite different than your own. (They do, because they grew up in different circumstances, even if you share similar aspects of your background.) We have different preferences, needs, concerns.
  3. Ask more than you presume. When you imagine you know how someone else feels, check it out before acting on your presumption.
  4. Accept that we are different. Because we are similar in some ways, it can be easy to assume we are similar in most ways, and we can be surprised and often annoyed when it turns out we are also different. Take a deep breath.  It is OK. You can guess, but check it out. 

So, the next time you are trying to understand what someone is feeling, what is motivating their behavior, what you need to do to make the encounter productive, pause… assume you’re talking to an alien, ask a lot of questions, be curious – you never know, it might inspire them to do the same.

Contact me at joanne.irving@i2aa or call me at 301-943-3074 to find out how you can cultivate your curiosity and courage, your C²Factor. Ensure that you apply true empathy to live a vibrant life and sustain a thriving organization. 

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