In everyday conversations – whether with friends, family or coworkers – most of us have an empathy deficit – we don’t express empathy enough.
Everyone wants to be seen, heard and appreciated. But not that many people—especially in workplaces—know how to communicate with empathy so that others feel seen, heard and appreciated.
Most of us are too focused on conveying our own messages.
“Self-absorption in all its forms kills empathy, let alone compassion. When we focus on ourselves, our world contracts as our problems and preoccupations loom large. But when we focus on others, our world expands. Our own problems drift to the periphery of the mind and so seem smaller, and we increase our capacity for connection—or compassionate action.” ~ Psychologist Daniel Goleman, Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships (Bantam, 2007)
When I ask people with whom I am coaching what empathy means to them, I get all sorts of answers. Empathy isn’t defined as having warm feelings for all of humanity as we strive for peace on Earth. It’s not about getting emotional, having “warm and fuzzy” feelings for someone else (although that may well happen).
Empathy involves understanding others’ thoughts and feelings—gaining true awareness by asking questions and actively listening.
Relationships are built on empathy. Unfortunately, many people erroneously assume they’re empathetic. Poorly expressed or absent empathy leads to misunderstandings, lack of trust and uncooperative friends, family, and colleagues.
Superficial connections with colleagues are often accepted as the norm. From what I’ve seen, we keep our distances at work. We let superficiality slip into our relationships with friends and family, as well, sometimes using humor as a handy substitute for getting to know and understand each other.
But a lack of empathy has wide-reaching consequences. No one intends to keep others at a distance, but that’s what happens when we pay insufficient attention to others’ emotions. Perhaps we’re afraid of coming across as overly touchy-feely, so we go to the other extreme: relying on logic and common sense, ignoring all feelings. Neither extreme benefits our relationships or communication efforts.
Communication is never a one-way street. While people want to hear what you have to say, they’re more interested in knowing that you care about them. Theodore Roosevelt said it well: “Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.”
Empathy lubricates authentic connections, allowing us to build trust and influence. It requires more than just seeing and feeling.
Maybe there ought to exist a measure of empathy as part of your IQ and as part of learning to be conversationally intelligent. Just like verbal and mathematical abilities, you can improve your empathy skills. It’s one of the things we discuss and work on in my coaching sessions with clients.