Happy new year! Many are launching into this year with hope and excitement. A new season will always invite opportunities to connect and build meaningful relationships. Empathy is not just important. It is vital. Even essential. A lack of empathy can communicate a hollow, dishonest, cynical and even overtly offensive stance in relationships. Just five seconds of conversation with an empathetic individual can convey a caring, genuine, and positive air. A small shift to become more empathetic can change everything in a relationship.
Moving to Baltimore to co-anchor an evening news reel at a local TV station, broadcast journalist Oprah Winfrey struggled in her position and was eventually demoted to the morning talk show in 1976. Now she is an entrepreneur and a leading media mogul of an empire. She has been able to develop her calling, align with her strengths, cross traditional boundaries, and responsibly wield influence through empathic relationships. Tim Cook, the Apple CEO, warned graduates at a recent commencement address, “People will try to convince you that you should keep empathy out of your career. Don’t accept this false premise.” He is not alone in recognizing and emphasizing the importance of how empathy can change culture. Police departments, corporate divisions, NBA teams, and various businesses are actively pursuing empathy as part of their ethos. Research now demonstrates that those that offer empathy training in workplaces tend to enjoy stronger collaboration, greater morale, less stress, and renewed emotional resilience in the face of obstacles and setbacks. Beyond the workplace, empathy must be sought out for vibrant relationships.
Empathy can transform a relationship. It works. It is not only about being humanly caring and understanding; it is altogether practical.
“Einfühlung” is seen as the German psychological term that implies “feeling-in.” In the Greek, em is “in” and pathos is “feeling,” and many started to combine the term and was officially coined at the start of the 20th century. Connection with others became the core of this concept and captured a swirl of experimental studies over the decades to better determine how people can live more emotionally fulfilled.
American social psychologist C. Daniel Batson has researched empathy for decades and argues that the term can now refer to eight different concepts: knowing another’s thoughts and feelings; imagining another’s thoughts and feelings; adopting the posture of another; actually feeling as another does; imagining how one would feel or think in another’s place; feeling distress at another’s suffering; feeling for another’s suffering, sometimes called pity or compassion; and projecting oneself into another’s situation.
Current research supports that empathy has steadily declined among young people from 1979 onward. Listen to this interview with Dr. Sara Konrath from the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy and the latest evidence on why empathy is on a steep decline:
Here are ways to build empathy into your everyday relationships.
Simply start with the relationship. Your relationship with the other person may not necessarily be fully established. Beginning with an empathic stance in the relationship shows that you genuinely care and have concern. You take the opportunity to create the relationship when you empathize. When both individuals express care and concern simultaneously, they are more likely to feel care and for each other. Both the recipient and the giver of empathy mutually benefit. When there might be some difficulty in the relationship, empathizing first can turn the conversation from hostility to approval and confrontation to collaboration. Many highlight that our relationships are our best assets. We are far more productive when we experience the context of a successful relationship than in a strained one. Empathy adds to the recipe of building relational health and success. It nurtures the quality of our relationships and determines the witness of our leadership.
Use active and empathic listening.
Poor listening leads to disruption in communication and unhealthy relational dynamics. Within our digital age of chronic distraction and multitasking endless social media notifications, feeds, and instant messages – the “cognitive bottleneck theory” can take place in which learning and attention suffer consequently with too much information processing. Louisiana State University’s communication experts, Christopher Gearhart and Graham Bodie, acknowledged that students low in the quality they identified as “active empathic listening” had lower scores on a social skills inventory. Essentially, being a poor listener is associated with poorer social and emotional sensitivity. Gearhart and Bodie created a measure that looked into active and empathic listening skills (AEL) and identified them as follow within the questionnaire to represent the quality of empathic listening between individuals:
Good actors have mastered these techniques within AEL and demonstrate direct eye contact and focused body language during typically intense conversations among each other. We can look to them as examples for sensing, processing, and responding in active empathic listening. Putting away the cellphone, ceasing to draw and doodle, and sitting relaxed and interested while engaging one another are critical aspects of AEL. When we clear our minds and demonstrate that we are listening, we will find it much easier to become engaged. Active empathic listening will require more effort at first, but the emotional and relational benefits will soon follow. Within the chronic distraction of the digital age, embracing the manifold and multi-faceted benefits of AEL will promote relational health in a landscape of shrinking attention spans and compulsive distractibility. Telltale signs of those that are not listening can be found in commonplace daily activities, but effective communicators are good listeners as well as good speakers.
Focus on similarities.
Muster both understanding and feeling of the other individual’s perspective by looking for similarities. Start small and identify what connections may already exist. Use these connections to light up a conversation. Offer to help out on a shared project and compliment the person on an exchange of ideas. Empathy is a choice you can make in the relational scenario. Having a generous spirit and focusing on similar goals will infuse empathy into any relationship.
Often our emotional self-control and willpower get challenged in relationships. Most likely there is a risk for an amygdala hijack if your palms sweat, breath quickens, and internal temperature rises. This is the part of the brain that influences the other rational and thinking part of the brain. A demeanor of calm and openness will be needed to conjure empathy for the other individual.
Principles to Remember
Empathy deserves pursuit. Use empathy to connect well with others. It can be built and grown in its current international buzz status. With personal and intentional effort, pay close attention to how you can build and change your relationship dynamics with empathy in this new year.