Empathy and Sympathy

Practice Empathy

The pattern principle helps sift through pebbles to identify the big rocks worthy of our attention.  Forgiveness is kryptonite to patterns.  However, let’s face it – mistakes and coincidences register high on the agitation scale.  There is another solution which doesn’t require the heavy lifting of forgiveness.  When time is short, hit the empathy button.

Empathy, Forgiveness or Sympathy?

Empathy is local – it does not require travelling the distance of forgiveness or sympathy.  Think of it as a quick weekend getaway.  Sympathy is akin to witnessing someone stuck in the sewer and feeling obligated to jump in.  Empathy is acknowledging the site, smell, and situation (without getting dirty), and offering a lifeline to escape.  “I see your discomfort.  I understand.  How can I help?”

Sympathy is necessary when a colleague is experiencing one of the big three (put on your hazmat suit):

  • losing a loved one
  • getting a divorce/separation
  • being fired from work

Empathy is for Everything Else

An anxious peer is standing in your doorway showing signs they cannot deliver on a commitment.  A nervous, direct report has just emailed the news they missed yesterday’s deadline.   One or more of your values have been assaulted causing steam to escape from your nose and ears.   The challenge to remain composed is real.  You want to be empathetic, but enough is enough.

The barrier to empathy is the growing desire to express your agitation (the kind that needs to be paid forward because your Manager is going to be equally agitated when they learn the ball was dropped under your watch).  As your colleague is flailing in the sewer, it is logical that your inner right fighter needs to express itself (waiting for karma will take too long, and public shaming feels justified).  “It has happened again, what were you thinking to walk into the sewer again?”  Pointing out the obvious may feel justified at the moment, but it could eventually land you in the leadership landfill.

Breathe .. and adopt a new belief.

Everyone does the best he or she can given the circumstances, and everyone’s life is as difficult as your own. 

We Are All Struggling

Nobody intentionally wants to fail, and we’ve all felt the anxiety of knowing we’ve dropped the ball.  Step into the shoes of the agitator and reconsider the best path forward.  Pause to consider what’s occurring in their cerebral orbs (and yours) before deciding to unleash your fury.

Understanding the Brain

When the brain detects fear, it is thrown into the automatic or defensive mode.  If a cougar is staring us down our defensive response is known as “fight, flight or freeze.”  The primitive part of the brain (that has evolved over generations), reacts without having to process information.  In the workplace, defensive mode shows up as “snap, sulk or skulk”.

When positive emotions are at play, the brain functions in deliberate or discovery mode.  Deliberate is less efficient than automatic, but it allows access to self-control, reason and imagined possibilities.  In the workplace, it shows up as “create, contribute and collaborate”.

Look at your agitator and you’ll see evidence of snap, sulk or skulk.  Look in the mirror and you may see the same.  The bottom line is that nobody wins when the brain is high jacked and automatic/defensive mode takes the wheel.

Demonstrating empathy throws the switch from automatic to deliberate.  Effective leaders understand that until the switch changes, individuals will remain stuck in snap, sulk or skulk.  Empathy helps everyone feel safe so the shift to create, contribute and collaborate can occur.  When a leader recognizes snap, sulk or sulk in themselves or others, they should consider which safety needs are threatened.

Eliminate the Threat

If the answer to any or all of the following questions is no, it is time to invite empathy to the party.

  • Do I/they feel safe?
  • Do I/they feel respected?
  • Do I/they feel fairly treated?
  • Am I/they confident in moving forward?
  • Are my/their needs being met?

Once empathy has arrived, (even if it is fashionably late), determine the best course of action to ensure both parties needs are met.

It is incumbent upon leaders to take the lead (that is why you get paid the big bucks).  Activate self-control and offer empathy to others.

Great Leaders are Prepared

  • Know your triggers (which situations set you off and make it difficult to be empathetic).  It is okay to have a long list (mine fills a three-ring binder).  Bring an awareness to the situations that trigger you.  Make a list of the last 10 times you felt yourself losing control.  Is there a pattern to your triggers (like situations, specific individuals, types of individuals for example, pessimists, complainers, less productive employees).
  • Remind  yourself that everyone does the best he or she can and assume good intentions
  • Be able to recognize signs of snap, sulk or skulk
  • Know which needs may need to be met for you/the other person to access deliberate and discovery thinking

 Download the Practice Empathy Learning and Reflection Skill Builder

Of course, there is a quicker path to accessing empathy.   When confronted by snap, sulk or skulk in others, imagine the individual as a newborn, taking their first few breaths in the arms of their proud mother.  When the anxiety is within, remind yourself that others may forget what you say or do, but they’ll always remember how you made them feel.  You don’t have to agree with the other person’s struggle but you do need to acknowledge their concern.  If you don’t acknowledge both their words and the meaning (emotion) they will remain stuck.  Plan to respond with “I hear what you are saying, and I understand your … fear … frustration or pain”.  You don’t have to agree with their words or emotion , but you will need to acknowledge them in order to perceived as the kind of leader everyone wants to work for.

Everyone wants to hang with a leader that is safe, offers acceptance and avoids pointing out the painfully obvious fact that we are imperfect human beings doing the best we can.

P.S.  If you’ve worked for me in the past and are saying “hey, but you spent most of your career in snap, sulk, or skulk,” I am asking for your forgiveness — or at least a little empathy.

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