This is part of the series Lessons from the Backseat…I remember the precise moment five years ago when I realized that my daughter, Lauren, understood the meaning of empathy. Tears were streaming down her face when I picked her up from elementary school. Sitting in the backseat with her brother, she could barely get the words out to tell me what had upset her.
Her classmate had said something mean about her to all the kids while she was in bathroom. When she returned to the classroom, they all stared at her and the room fell silent. Later, she found out from a friend what had transpired. Ugh.
We talked about her feelings. She was hurt that her classmate had made the remark behind her back. “Why didn’t she just say it to me?” I tried my best to explain that sometimes people are dishonest, and it’s hurtful when that happens. Some people will be kind, and some will be mean. We don’t have control over that, and we have to go on and live our lives.
She sat quietly for a few seconds before saying, “One thing I have learned from this experience is not to do something like this to anyone. It doesn’t feel good, and now I know what it is like to stand in their shoes before they have even put them on.” Then her tears disappeared, and she started singing with her brother. I drove on, absorbing the lessons of that afternoon and the power of empathy.
What does Empathy do?
A few examples:
- It gives us the resilience to bounce back from a hurtful situation without bitterness, and rise from it with the resolve to be more caring toward others.
- It enables us to build kinder, more inclusive communities. Last April, during lockdown in London, a neighbor left a bag of gloves and masks at my door. They were sold out everywhere so as soon as she received a package, she set aside some for me. I was deeply touched by her random act of kindness.
- It strengthens personal relationships. I had a big aha moment with my husband last year. Working and being alone with the kids meant I had a lot on my plate. When I shared my frustrations over the phone, he started going through all these machinations to solve things which annoyed me further. I told him that all I needed was for him to say, “I know it’s tough babe, I wish I were there.”
- It supports us in doing our best at work. Think of how you feel with a manager who lacks empathy. Most likely misunderstood, disconnected, even anxious. It can be the loneliest feeling. Now think of what it’s like to work with a leader who demonstrates empathy. You feel more connection, greater trust and achieve richer professional growth.
In his inauguration speech, President Joe Biden also gave a nod to the role of empathy in healing a divided nation, “We can do this if we open our souls instead of hardening our hearts, if we show a little tolerance and humility, and if we’re willing to stand in the other person’s shoes”.
One of the things I’ve learned is that the failure to display empathy isn’t always intentional. We are not born as empathetic beings. It’s a skill that’s nurtured and cultivated, hopefully in formative years through to early adulthood. However, all isn’t lost if we miss out on honing this skill; there is time to catch up.
How to cultivate greater empathy
My personal recommendations are:
- Ask yourself how you would feel if this situation happened to you.
- Listen to others in a nonjudgmental way, seek to understand first, not solve.
- Examine your beliefs and question why you think the way that you do.
- Get curious about others instead of making assumptions.
- Lean into uncomfortable conversations so that you can learn more about yourself and the impact you have on others – family, friends, and colleagues included.
In her bestselling book entitled, Dare to Lead, research professor Brené Brown, writes “Empathy is a choice. And it’s a vulnerable choice…” She also explains what empathy is, what it is not and shares her top recommendations on how to improve your skills in this area. It’s a phenomenal book that I highly recommend. Visit BreneBrown.com and browse the Dare to Lead Hub for a wealth of resources.
If you didn’t ramp up on empathy in 2020 then this year is your chance because, by the looks of it, things aren’t getting any easier. I firmly believe that as we seek to create more just and equitable societies, workplaces, and communities where people feel a deep sense of belonging and rise to be their best selves, we must let empathy be our guide.
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© Arlene Amitirigala 2021. All Rights Reserved.