Empathy Evolution (An Un-Empath’s Starter Pack)
Updated: Jan 13
Ever hear the words, “you lack empathy?” Chances are you have in some shape or form. When I did, it didn’t sit well and certainly not as truth. I often found myself caring and feeling a great deal in response to others, so how could it be true? A couple of years ago our team took the Clifton Strengths Finder test and to the sound of cackling laughter, the results ranked empathy as my 27th strength out of the 34. Something had to be done since you know, it is an attribute of significance. As a consultant, trainer, and in my personal life, I can attest to how empathy has enabled trust and genuine sharing of ideas.
Ahead are a few way points that may be useful if like me, empathy doesn’t come naturally to you.
Did I miss the memo?
Yes. Take the above statement about caring, feeling, and not knowing what could be lacking when it comes to empathy. Turns out that statement doesn’t relate much to what the word means. Like many things that are a struggle, I had to consider what degree empathy remained a blind spot. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel though. Strengths Finder articulates empathy as an instinctive ability to understand, “hear the unvoiced questions…anticipate the need.” Jedi mind trick, right? Truly successful collaboration with clients and colleagues, winning together, depends on understanding the need. What are us mere mortals to do?
Like any muscle or fitness goal, practice makes perfect and a defined process certainly helps. Enter Nonviolent Communication (NVC), a book I chanced upon, written by Marshall Rosenberg, Ph.D. Flip the soft cover over and see the words, “Put your primary focus on connection through empathic listening rather than ‘being right’ or ‘getting what you want.’” Sounds like the place to be. Here are just a few teasers that resonated:
Nowhere else to be
Pulling unvoiced questions out of minds and into the world, and your ears, begins with listening…and stays there longer than perhaps typically assumed. Rosenberg shares in NVC, “Don’t just do something, stand there.” It’s difficult to understand what people are truly saying at first pass, so gifting more time to allow full expression is key.
Needs versus Solutions
Keeping a clear, unadulterated mind when listening to others speak is no small feat. Muscle memory, as stated. What it allows for and where the magic lies, is tuning into potential needs. The easier path of assuming where words are going, leads to the solution trap, where we already formulate an action plan and solve the problem in our minds while listening. Reminder that the needs identified here are only potential ones and need to be validated.
This is where the plot can be lost most often. Good intentions allow near understanding, but the next step requires paraphrased repeating of what was just heard. NVC outlines this shapes conversation to:
Confirm the understanding of the speaker
Give the speaker a chance to correct the paraphrasing
Invite the speaker to revisit their words and share more
This practice expands into how best to respond to others’ observations, feelings, and requests. NVC is not as simple as an open-ended question like, “What would you like me to do?” Rather, it is an implicitly vulnerable way of inviting more information, “I’m confused by the ask here, would you mind elaborating on these areas?”
Making it a point to paraphrase may feel awkward at first. However, in my experience the effort does not go unnoticed, and I may have given myself the nickname “awkward Ansari.” Consider that finding solutions, being strategic, and executing may feel like bread and butter but without empathy the true ask, the need, remains hidden. So what are we even being strategic about?
Learning to be empathetic does not equate to a retiring of contrasting communication methods, including humourous ones like wit and sarcasm, or being disingenuous if it isn’t in your nature. It’s hard work.
If caring about others – especially those you lead – is truly important, then it might not be just a tool for the belt, but one carried in hand.
Monem Ansari Learning & Change Management Consultant Toronto