A woman cries. The caption reads,
“Dad’s bone scan came back.”
My eyes well up, and my face contorts like hers. I feel her anguish even though this photograph and caption are all I know about her. I empathize. Please, I have a dad, too.
I get it, mostly. I empathize when I “relate” to her, and these tiny bits of information do the trick: Dad. In pain. Dying. I don’t want him to go. Those are some darn powerful triggers.
That’s some pretty easy empathy.
Easy empathy pisses me off because it makes us complacent. Just because we have an emotional reaction to someone who is apparently having a similar feeling, we call ourselves compassionate. I call that horse hockey. Why not just go to the movies and let Steven Spielberg and John Williams fill you up with all sorts of empathic fantasies and call it a day?
Real empathy, deep empathy, takes work, and there’s a gigantic payoff.
Yes, sharing feelings is a beautiful thing, especially with a stranger. It’s important, too. Easy empathy is an open door that invites relationship by making an important initial bond. Heck, that’s how we fall in love. The dialog goes something like this.
“That’s how I’d feel. That’s what I’d do.”
“Me, too. That’s how I’d feel! That’s what I’d do, too!”
Voila! We’re in love. I love being in love!
After a couple months the story gets more complicated. Empathy is more difficult when we notice all the feelings and behaviors we don’t understand in each other. We fall out of being in love.
It’s only deeper empathy that can turn that beautiful initial charge into a real relationship, at least, this is my working hypothesis. Taken further, I propose deep empathy is the only thing humans need to practice to save humanity. How’s that for a reductive platitude?
More practically, I ask you, my dear reader,
How can we grow our relationships with customers, with colleagues, with friendships and family into real-life interdependence?
Three types of empathy
Let’s set some basic vocabulary. According to some folks empathy comes in three distinct flavors:
- Emotional (or affective) empathy is feeling how someone else feels. This is wired into most of us. We witness an accident, we wince. Emotional empathy connects us through a common sense of humanity. For some it’s a curse; other people’s feelings wear them out.
- Empathic concern or sympathy is recognizing how someone else feels and, if it’s a distressing feeling, showing concern. Empathic concern often inspires action. Buying a sympathy card is easy empathy.
- Cognitive empathy is understanding why someone behaves the way she does. We all make assumptions about other people’s behavior. We’re usually wrong.
The differences between these types of empathy become dramatic when one is missing. Some autistic people have emotional empathy but struggle with cognitive empathy. They feel other people’s feelings, but they don’t understand them. On the other hand, sociopaths, torturers, and some politicians have scads of cognitive empathy but lack emotional empathy and sympathy. They are skilled manipulators because they understand very clearly how people behave. They just can’t feel for them.
Then there are important matters of degree. Easy empathy comes naturally to most of us. Deep empathy takes practice. We need to work at it. Ironically, deep empathy requires that we first separate from the other. We need to see the crying woman as not us. Instead of asking, “How would I feel?” or “What would I do?” we have to ask “How does she feel?” and “Why does she feel that way?” We have to get curious.
What doesn’t work; that is, what pisses other people off about me
I try to empathize. I frequently fail. Yay! Consider these two typical stories.
Story 1. She [unnamed] wants so much for me to feel her feelings, but I refuse. She begs, “Wouldn’t you feel bad if he said that?” I can’t go there. It feels like a trap. That’s my crap I guess, but my response feels righteous. “Tell me why it made you feel so bad?” I don’t want to take on her feelings. That’s not how I want to bond. I want to learn about who she is, where we are different and not the same, and so through my wish I deny her hers.
Wouldn’t that piss you off?
Story 2. He [unnamed] tells me, “God is Love,” nodding as though we will bond over that unbelievably vague statement, as though Love and God are things we both understand similarly. I kill his buzz by asking, “What do you mean by Love?” The conversation stops. The door closes.
I do actually want to know the answers, but my own feelings get in the way. Pissing people off isn’t the path to deep empathy.
Empathizing with teenagers
Just today my IT guy and I were talking about our kids. He told me, “I can’t relate to my son. He is completely unmotivated by anything except video games. I was nothing like that.”
It’s hard with teenagers. We think we remember what it’s like for them, and we’re tempted to save them pain by conveying the lessons we learned, but really, it’s their job to not listen to us. They need to find their own way in the world that’s not ours. For them, as Parents we need to set aside our own feelings. It’s our job to listen, to observe them like an anthropologist, to practice cognitive empathy— to find our way into their world.
Glimpsing their world is our first step to deep empathy. When we start to feel what they actually feel and understand why they do what they do, then maybe, just maybe, we’ll have something useful to offer back.
Opening doors and opening minds
When I constructed the networking lesson for my class, Kick Start Your Dreams, I knew I couldn’t deliver a formula for connecting to lots of people. I’m barely learning how to do that myself. What I do know is how to form deep connections, and deep empathy is my answer. I believe it applies to every relationship worth nurturing.
As a User Experience Designer my job is to understand someone else’s needs. I can’t deliver a pathway to meeting those needs unless I practice cognitive empathy.
As a Father I need to understand how my daughter’s silence serves her instead of getting frustrated and demanding that she learn to express herself the way I do.
As a Teacher I learn what my students are struggling with before I offer insight.
The giant payoff
And so, I invite you to join me as I offer this awesome, ever inspiring pathway through deep empathy to a life you believe in, very deeply.
Know your customers and they will buy from you forever.
Empathize with your colleagues and they will fight for you, tooth and nail.
Understand what your heroes want most and you will find fast friendships.
Open your own mind through deep empathy and the door to a rich world of little regret will fly open.
And now, the imperative version of this article in 10 words.
Stop reacting and start asking. Stop assuming and start listening.