The recent news bulletins about the unfolding events in Afghanistan, observing the chaos and fear of those trying desperately to board a plane and flee the country, has been devastating and heartbreaking.
So many of the gains made over the last 20 years evaporating seemingly overnight.
It’s made me feel terribly sad and helpless to assist.
Are you an empath?
Are you a person highly sensitive to the emotions of others that, courtesy of your mirror neurons enables you to feel what they feel as a shared experience?
Or do you see it as just another example of woo-woo, irrelevant touchy-feely stuff and found only in “Petals.”
If you fall into the latter, I’d like to challenge your belief because
empathy is essential to your mental wellbeing
It is also something you can use to enhance your effectiveness as a leader or caregiver, to demonstrate your respect to your colleagues and to show that fundamentally, you care about others.
In her book The Leader as a Mensch: Become the Kind Of Person Others Want to Follow, Bruna Martinuzzi describes empathy as the “oil that keeps relationships running smoothly”.
This is no surprise when you consider just how important our relationships are to our health and happiness. Whether you live and work alone or alongside others, your ability to perform at your best depends less on your technical acumen and smarts and far more on your ability to interact and relate with others.
And with 70% of us working either in a team or across multiple teams, you’re probably aware how the effectiveness of any team depends on the quality and strength of your interpersonal relationships and the level of psychological safety enjoyed.
Relationships enable us to get our work done
Empathy allows us to connect with others at the level of feelings and needs and it is a two-way street.
Because when you connect empathetically with others, this helps you to meet your own needs of being heard and understood, while seeking to meet their needs too.
As Daniel Goleman in the 2004 HBR article “What Makes a Leader?” suggests, empathetic leaders use their knowledge and understanding to improve their organisations with thoughtful and considerate intelligent decisions.
The empathetic leader is seen as trustworthy and fair. You become a leader worth following. While the understanding is that difficult decisions will not be deferred or watered down, an empathetic approach makes it easier to accept that the decision was not made lightly or without care.
This is increasingly important at this time of living with a global pandemic, where cross-cultural sensitivity, the need to attract and retain top talent and to remain visible and relevant to the customer base is essential to business survival and future growth and prosperity.
Empathy is at risk of being added to the Endangered Species List
If empathy is so good for us, why is it in increasing short supply?
It’s far easier to stay empathetic when you feel in control of a situation, where levels of stress are low, and you have the thinking capacity to think things through carefully and critically.
However, living with chronic high stress and feeling constantly under pressure is an empathy killer. It’s hard to feel empathy when you are exhausted, overstretched and are afraid you’re about to self-combust or make a ghastly career-ending mistake.
Are some people just better at being empathetic?
There is certainly a genetic predisposition. Those called to work in the “caring professions” such as medicine, nursing and other allied health practitioners have traditionally been found to have naturally high levels of empathy.
Today that’s less true. Studies reveal empathy levels start to decline by the third year in medical school and stay low until graduation! This can lead to an increased risk of burnout and or mental mood disorders such as anxiety and depression. Fortunately, empathy is a skill that can be readily learned and improved on (you just must want to) and empathy classes are very effective.
It can also go missing in those workplaces where the emphasis is on productivity and profit before people.
If you are surrounded by anger, aggression, and a culture of every individual for themselves, that loss of relatedness, significance and connection is often the trigger to look for the nearest exit as fast as possible.
Which is why access to empathy education is a must, not a nice to have.
When drugs kill off empathy
Beyond the environment, certain commonly used drugs are also empathy killers. Painkillers such as Ibuprofen and Acetaminophen (the main constituent of Tylenol) are effective at reducing physical pain but also block emotions.
In addition, some people when prescribed an antidepressant such as an SSRI, report feeling less depressed but now find it harder to feel anything in this emotionally blunted state. This can feel worse than having depression.
When you consider one in six people is currently living with depression and much of it remains undiagnosed or managed, that’s a lot of empathy and wellbeing lost within our society.
How to Build Greater Empathy
This is about elevating your social intelligence.
The key is to slow down, pay attention to and notice what’s happening with those around you, and how they are being impacted.
1. Show you have seen the other person.
In her Ted talk Susan David author of Emotional Agility shares the Zulu word for hello, “Sawubona” meaning, “I see you, and by seeing you I bring you into being.” We feel connected when we know we have been seen as a fellow human being. Use your eyes to engage.
2. Listen up.
It’s said the greatest gift we can share with another person is our full and undivided attention. Zip the lip and don’t interrupt! Get comfortable with silence. This can be hard when we’re so used to playing verbal ping-pong in our conversations, rehearsing our next response rather than hearing what is being shared with us.
A genuine smile demonstrates you want to fully engage with someone.
4. Tune in.
What have you noticed is and isn’t being said? A person’s body language speaks far louder than words and the message doesn’t get hidden. Provide the other person with the space to collect their thoughts before speaking and show you’re listening by not undertaking other tasks like checking your email or taking a phone call at the same time. Even the presence of a mobile phone has been shown to diminish the quality of the interaction, so switch it to silent and keep it out of sight.
5. Show genuine interest.
Be curious to find out more. Be interested not interesting. This isn’t about you and your experience. While it can be very tempting to give some “good advice,” hold back. Have you ever been in that situation where you’re sharing a concern close to your heart and the other person only seems interested in telling you what happened to them and what you should do? How does that make you feel? Diminished? Unheard?
Instead, try asking questions to help you get a better understanding of what’s happening, what’s important to the other person and what they want, or they think they need to do.
6. Be inclusive.
This is about turn taking and encouraging everyone to have a voice in a conversation or meeting. This is especially important for introverts. Encouraging a quiet person to speak up early and showing your appreciation for their input will bolster their confidence and allow them to feel heard.
7. Ask yourself – how can I show that I care?
Choose to focus on the other person’s needs by calling out the good and showing your appreciation in a genuine and memorable way. This is what builds connection, a sense of belonging and greater wellbeing. We all need to know someone cares about us.
How does empathy show up in your world?
Do you consciously seek ways to be more empathetic in your interactions with people?
How would a small increase in empathy in your workplace change how you feel about your colleagues and the work you do?
I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, keynote speaker and best-selling author. Her latest book Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life (Wiley) is now available for purchase.
To discover more about how to develop your own mental well-being the next intake for my 8-week online Thriving Mind Academy starts on September 6th. You can find out more here.
And for your teams, here are details of my corporate Thriving Mind Program that runs over 3-6 months.