Each month at Balanced Achievement, we explore various personal qualities that are exhibited by the world’s most successful, happy, and fulfilled individuals. In this ongoing series called ‘The ABCs of Personal Qualities’, we not only highlight individual personal characteristics but also explain why they are important and provide definitive steps that you can take to develop and cultivate the given attribute within yourself. Today, we look at the personal quality of Empathy, which is one of the most important communicational skills you can develop.
Throughout the vast majority of the 1950s, 60s, and early 70s, racial segregation and violence towards African Americans were prevalent in the southern states of America. It wasn’t until 1965 and 1968 when the Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights Act respectively passed, and the years that followed these momentous legislative actions would be a time of great tension and hostility for both whites and blacks. As schools, restaurants, and stores became desegregated, citizens of both races would have to learn how to co-exist with one another. While this particular period of American history may seem like the unlikeliest of places to introduce the personal quality of empathy, it is exactly where we will turn.
It was in 1971 when Claiborne Paul (C.P.) Ellis, a Ku Klux Klan leader at the time, was appointed as the co-chair of a committee set to decide how to spend a $78,000 grant earmarked for education desegregation in Durham, North Carolina. Throughout his entire life, Ellis had learned to blame African-Americans for his family’s impoverishment and was encouraged to act with racism whenever he could. When he learned that his co-chair counterpart was an African-American civil rights activist by the name of Ann Atwater, a woman he had come to hate, Ellis was disappointed, to say the least.
No one would’ve predicted that after working only 10 days with Atwater, Ellis would denounce his racist views and leadership post of the Ku Klux Klan, but that is exactly what he did. As it would go, Ellis began to empathetically communicate with Atwater, consciously choosing to walk in her shoes, and he soon realized that they shared a connection and common goal. Ellis later recalled the experience:
We began to talk about what was on our heart, and both of us wept. It was because the kids were suffering.”
Not only did empathy allow Ellis and Atwater to work together for 10 straight days, but it also was the communication element that led to a friendship that would last until Ellis’ death in 2005.
What is Empathy:
There are many closely related emotional states and personal characteristics that illuminate a broader set of do-good feel-good communication strategies and individual qualities. While empathy is one of these, it is oftentimes misunderstood for being synonymous with other closely related words such as kindness and sympathy. Whenever an individual opens up to others with words and deeds of friendliness and generosity, they would be exhibiting kindness. On the other hand, an individual who feels bad for another person’s misfortunes would be expressing feelings of sympathy.
Not to be confused with these two closely related states, empathy is used to describe one’s ability to put themselves in another’s shoes and see things from their perspective.
While the qualities of kindness and sympathy are certainly desirable traits, empathy encompasses something bigger as it allows us to truly understand what others are experiencing. Acclaimed business and behavioral science author Daniel H. Pink sums it up like this:
Empathy is about standing in someone else’s shoes, feeling with his or her heart, seeing with his or her eyes. Not only is empathy hard to outsource and automate, but it makes the world a better place.”
By seeing with the eyes of others, listening with their ears, and feeling with their hearts, our ability to communicate effectively becomes profoundly better and our feelings of connection towards others begin to radiate beyond our normal social circles.
Why is Empathy Important:
Over the past two decades, there has been a growing emphasis in the fields of psychology, business, and communications to encourage the development and cultivation of empathy. This push comes with good reasoning as an increase in one’s capabilities to communicate empathetically provides each of the involved parties with vast benefits. There is lengthy list of reasons that make empathy important, with the following five leading the way:
Being able to communicate empathetically with others will assuredly improve your relationships across every area of your life. When you are willing to step outside of your own perspective and look through another’s viewpoint, you will be able to determine what communication strategies work best while interacting with different people. By fostering the rapport that comes as a natural byproduct of empathy, your relationships with flourish regardless of if it is an intimate relationship with a loved one, an acquaintance from church, or a colleague at work.
Provides us with Feelings of Connection:
Evolutionary speaking, it is widely assumed that human connection and feelings of unity are vital components of personal well-being. By increasing your empathy capabilities, you can increase your feelings of oneness to those around you and enlarge the size of your social circles in a way that adds more joy to your life.
Increases our Business Acumen:
Developing the habit of putting yourself in the shoes of another and seeing things from their perspective will undoubtedly have a massive impact on our business success. Because empathy allows business professionals to understand consumers, employees, colleagues, and partners, it is thought of as a high covenant leadership trait. Moreover, empathetic individuals are naturally better at working through problems and finding solutions that work best. Stephen Covey, the author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, tells us:
When you show deep empathy toward others, their defensive energy goes down, and positive energy replaces it. That’s when you can get more creative in solving problems.”
Allows us to Learn from the Experiences of Others:
Having the ability to act empathically in any situation, regardless of whether it is positive or negative, gives you the opportunity to learn from the experiences of others. While empathy is primarily thought of as a communication quality that is ideal for solving problems, it can similarly be used to learn from someone else’s successes. By developing your ability to see things from a different perspective, and consciously focusing on learning from others’ experiences, you will be able to make enhanced decisions when facing similar circumstances.
Makes the World a Better Place:
The vast majority of the world’s hate, violence, and anger stems from the inability of individuals to communicate with empathy. By opening our eyes to different points of view, without bringing our own agenda or beliefs into the equation, we can communicate in a way that makes the world a better place. Additionally, one byproduct of empathy that is of noteworthy importance, is that it naturally leads to compassion and the positive actions that spring from it.
Cultivating & Developing Empathy Within Yourself:
Just as with any other personal quality or capability, cultivating and developing empathy is a process that takes both conscious effort and time. While some research points to an individual’s levels of empathy being based upon heredity, most experts agree that empathy is a trait that can be cultivated within. There is a wide range of strategies one can take to increase their empathetic communication abilities. Here we will review five, but again it’s important to remember that your abilities to communicate with empathy will be based upon the effort you put into developing the trait:
Develop Mindfulness & Start Listening for Understanding:
Oftentimes when we are in conversation, either distractions in our environment or persistent thought patterns inside of our heads make it nearly impossible to fully connect with the people we are communicating with. Two surefire ways to improve your empathy capabilities are to develop mindfulness and start listening for understanding. Overcoming the habit of mindlessly answering any statement, question, or idea that one hears is challenging, but can certainly be done. It’ll be vitally important to bring the intention of empathetic understanding into your conversations, and you can do this by internally asking yourself ‘How would I feel in their shoes?’ when talking to others. Moreover, increasing your levels of mindfulness through the practice of meditation will vastly decrease the repetitive thoughts inside your head.
Become Genuinely Curious & Interested in Others:
Immortalized self-help leader Dale Carnegie is best known for his 1936 book How to Win Friends and Influence People. While this book was written long before empathy became a hot topic in psychology and business circles, Carnegie had a keen understanding of the power of empathetic communication approaches. In his best-selling book, there are ten principles dedicated to becoming a friendlier person, and principle number four, becoming genuinely interested in others, is of great empathetic importance. By becoming curious and interested in those around you, your empathetic capabilities will naturally increase. While the vast majority of people want to talk about themselves, you can set yourself apart by showing genuine interest and empathy towards all.
Improve Your Understanding of Nonverbal Body Language:
It is estimated that over 50% of human communication is done so through our nonverbal facial expressions, gestures, and postures. By increasing our understanding of what particular messages are being conveyed through nonverbal body language, we can gain insight into how others around us are feeling. When we empathetically observe the nonverbal clues of others, we can make calculated assumptions about how they are feeling and base our communicative decisions on them. To improve your understanding of nonverbals, you may want to take a class at a local community college or find a reputable training program online.
Search for Similarities in Those that are Different:
Just as the story of C.P. Ellis and Ann Atwater shows, there are typically similarities, common interests, and mutual objectives that we share with all. Keeping in mind that each and every individual is trying to do their best, we can consciously aim to find the human qualities that connect us to others. By consciously making an effort to increase your contact with those that are different than you, and aiming to see things from their perspective, you gain the ability to break down culture, gender, and racial barriers. Once you have cultivated the intention to connect with dissimilar others by searching for similarities, your feelings of connection towards others will vastly expand.
Recall Instances When You Felt That Way:
Throughout each of our lives, there will inevitably be times when our disagreements with others must be resolved. Arguments with loved ones and conflicts that take place at work are especially important to find solutions for. While it can be difficult to take an empathetic approach in heated situations, it can be tremendously beneficial to do so. One way to bring empathy into our disagreements is to actively listen to what others are saying and recall instances when we felt what they are feeling. You can do this by asking ‘When have I felt like that?’ and recalling instances when you were emotionally distressed. By taking a more even-keeled approach toward conflict resolution, beneficial outcomes will come quickly and without any reservations.
By taking the time to develop our empathetic communication skills, we can see tremendous results in the relationships of our lives. As you have learned, there is a wide range of practices that we can utilize to increase our empathy and a plethora of benefits that can spring from them. Maybe most important of all is to focus on finding the poem in every person you meet while remembering what British Pakistani author Mohsin Hamid says:
Empathy is about finding echoes of another person in yourself.”