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What is Empathy and why is it important?

The ability to demonstrate someone else’s feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in that person’s situation is how Cambridge English Dictionary defines empathy.

Demonstrating we have listened to and understood another’s perspective is an essential life skill and the key to interpersonal effectiveness.

Recall your emotions when you felt you weren’t listened to: Angry, frustrated, demotivated, to name just a few of the feelings probably experienced. It is therefore surprising that very few of us have had lessons in listening.

A high degree of self-awareness and emotional intelligence is required not to push our prejudices and judgements without first understanding a situation.

So what’s with this emotional intelligence?

In his books, Emotional Intelligence (EQ): Why It Can Matter More than IQ and Working With Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman presents five categories of emotional intelligence.

  1. Self-awareness: If a person has a healthy sense of self-awareness, they understand their strengths and weaknesses, as well as how their actions affect others. A person who is self-aware is usually better able to handle and learn from constructive criticism than one who is not.
  2. Self-regulation: A person with a high EQ can maturely reveal their emotions and exercise restraint when needed. Instead of repressing their feelings, they express them with restraint and control.
  3. Motivation: Emotionally intelligent people are self-motivated. They’re not motivated merely by money or a title. They are usually resilient and optimistic when they encounter disappointment and driven by an inner ambition.
  4. Empathy: A person who has personal insight has compassion and an understanding of human nature that allows him to connect with other people on an emotional level. The ability to empathise enable a person to provide exceptional service and respond genuinely to others’ concerns.
  5. People skills: People who are emotionally intelligent can build rapport and trust quickly with others on their teams. They avoid power struggles and backstabbing. They usually enjoy other people and have the respect of others around them.

Empathy is the big player

Empathy is not only a core category of emotional intelligence in and of its own right, but it is also an intrinsic component of the other four groups.

Some tools and techniques

So how can this life-enhancing skill be developed? The answer is to use some mantras, simple techniques and practice!

The useful mantras:

  • Seek first to understand before being understood
  • Be quick to understand and slow to judge
  • Intent v impact: Appreciate that peoples desired intent can be different from the impact they have
  • Situation v disposition: Try to understand the full picture of a personal situation before you pass judgment on their disposition (a person’s inherent qualities of mind and character.)
  • We have two ears and one mouth we should use them with that ratio in mind!

Keeping these mantras ‘front of mind’ and engage in active listening.

Use the acronym LAER Listen Acknowledge Explore Respond

Listen: Don’t interrupt or speak over people when they are talking. Use supporting body language.

Acknowledge: Summarise what you have heard, the other persons view and how they feel.

Explore: Ask open questions. Kipling’s quote is well positioned to help: I have six honest serving men they taught me all I knew, their names are what and why and when and how and where and who.

Repeat the process of Listening, Acknowledging and Exploring until you have a complete understanding of the situation from the 3rd parties perspective.

Respond: First ask how can I help or what would you like me to do. The offer advice, your views and opinions in response. Always reflecting- does this need to be said, does this need to be said by me, does this need be said by me now.

It’s not easy, and there’s a good reason

Why is this so difficult? Because our ego and self-worth can get so attached to our views. Another view contrary to our own can seem threatening, and an affront to our very identity.

It requires enhanced emotional intelligence to demonstrate empathy. Richard Causton in his book, The Buddha in Daily Life, sums this dilemma up nicely, ‘One characteristic of the truly wise man is that he can recognise the wisdom of others and is more concerned in discovering the truth in any situation than in simply defending his own opinion.’

No Pushover

Demonstrating empathy is not to turn ourselves into a pushover, understanding is not necessarily agreement.  We can enter any conversation and dialogue, verbal and written, intending to understand it and suspend or need to necessarily agree or disagree with it.  In the end, we can endeavour to agree to disagree agreeably!

A lifelong journey

Make it a goal to becoming a good listener. Use every conversation to listen, ask questions, and understand. Resist the temptation to offer an opinion. This quest is a life long journey; however, it represents the gristmill of interpersonal effectiveness and mutually beneficial relationships.

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