If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you'll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.
Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
My friend and fellow marathon runner, Paul, has been sidelined recently, due to a foot injury. It’s easy for me to empathise with him as I am recovering from an injured ankle. I understand his pain and frustration.
On the website, psychcentral, Traci Pederson defines empathy as: “the ability to understand and feel what another person is experiencing. Empathy is a necessary and essential component of any relationship or social group. It is at the root of all pro-social behavior and compassionate action.
Empathy is distinct from the emotions of sympathy or pity. When a person feels sympathy, he essentially “feels sorry” for a person in trouble and views that person with a sense of separation. Empathy, on the other hand, is getting on the same level as the troubled person and, in a sense, feeling what that person is going through. Empathy is essentially minimizing the differences between oneself and another.
We have had two very tragic incidents occur, in Canada, recently. On April 6, a coach bus carrying the The Humboldt Broncos junior hockey team, collided with a semi-trailer truck near Armley, Saskatchewan, killing 16 people and injuring 13. On April 23, a rented van was driven at speed along a sidewalk and into pedestrians along Yonge Street in the North York City Centre business district of Toronto, killing 10 and injuring 14.
I have the very deepest sympathy for the families, friends and those injured, in both incidents. But, try as I might, I cannot, honestly, put myself in their shoes and truly begin to experience the emotions they will be experiencing. As Pederson explained, to feel true empathy, we have to understand what another person is feeling. In certain situations, a lack of empathy, can have very negative consequences.
In a recent interview on the CBC’s The Current, with Anna Maria Tremonti. Doctor Brian Goldman, host of his own CBC programme, White Coat Black Art, explained that he strongly believes empathy can transform healthcare. An encounter with a patient led Goldman on a quest to better understand what it means to be kind and empathetic.
"When patients tell you you're incompetent, there's a good chance that they could be wrong but when they tell you that you're not kind, that hurts because they know kindness — everybody knows kindness," said the author of The Power of Kindness. That research took him all around the world and what he found is that kindness is powerful and transformative — and a lack of empathy has consequences on both the doctor and the patient.
"When we aren't kind to somebody else, we walk away diminished emotionally physically. Our heart rate goes up, our stress hormones go up, our blood pressure goes up,” He added that the same results occur in patients when receiving unkind care. “I think that lack of kindness is like the death of a thousand cuts. And that’s one of the reasons why people who are in high intensity jobs like being a paramedic or lawyer or whatever burnout in mid-career.” When doctors are less empathetic, Goldman said, their patients become less engaged, and less trusting.
“They don’t comply with their doctors recommendations, their medications, their prescriptions, if it’s not handed to them kindly, with empathy,” he said. Goldman believes there’s no losing to showing empathy because it comes back tenfold. The benefits of showing empathy will always have you walking away happy and satisfied, “in a way that you would not dream possible,” he said. “It’s not hard to give yourself time to do it. But if you do, you will feel better and more fulfilled in your life, perhaps, than you have ever felt before.”
In the workplace, it is essential that we have the skill to empathise with people, in a variety of situations. In his book How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale carnegie wrote : “People who can put themselves in the place of other people, who can understand the workings of their minds, need never worry about what the future has in store for them.” He also suggested that: “To be genuinely interested in other people is a most important quality for a sales-person to possess—for any person, for that matter.”
It is clear that being able to show empathy is important in all walks of life, but there are those who have not mastered this people skill. In business, this can be particularly problematic. In an article entitled “Empathy at Work”, the team at mindtools.com explains: “Workers with poor people skills can often find themselves in the middle of unnecessary conflict. This can be exhausting and stressful for all concerned, and it can destroy even the best laid work plans.
Many people are confident that they can develop new technical skills and knowledge through training and experience. However, there’s a common belief that “you are how you are” when it comes to “soft” skills (interacting with other people) – and that there’s little or nothing you can do about it. Fortunately, this is far from true. And a great place to start improving your soft skills is by developing the ability to empathize with others. To be empathic, you have to think beyond yourself and your own concerns.”
The team suggests that in order to start using empathy more effectively, we should consider the following:
1. Put aside your viewpoint: try to see things from the other person’s point of view.
When you do this, you’ll realize that other people most likely aren’t being evil, unkind, stubborn, or unreasonable – they’re probably just reacting to the situation with the knowledge they have.
2. Validate the other person’s perspective.
Once you “see” why others believe what they believe, acknowledge it. Remember: acknowledgement does not always equal agreement. You can accept that people have different opinions from your own, and that they may have good reason to hold those opinions.
3. Examine your attitude.
Are you more concerned with getting your way, winning, or being right? Or, is your priority to find a solution, build relationships, and accept others? Without an open mind and attitude, you probably won’t have enough room for empathy
Listen to the entire message that the other person is trying to communicate. Listen with your ears – what is being said, and what tone is being used? Listen with your eyes – what is the person doing with his or her body while speaking? Listen with your instincts – do you sense that the person is not communicating something important? Listen with your heart – what do you think the other person feels?
5. Ask what the other person would do.
When in doubt, ask the person to explain his or her position. This is probably the simplest, and most direct, way to understand the other person. However, it’s probably the least used way to develop empathy. Practice these skills when you interact with people. You’ll likely appear much more caring and approachable – simply because you increase your interest in what others think, feel, and experience. It’s a great gift to be willing and able to see the world from a variety of perspectives – and it’s a gift that you can use all of the time, in any situation.”
It is evident that, in order to have an empathetic approach to situations, probably the most important skill we should develop is the ability to listen. As Ernest Hemingway once said: “When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.” That means actively listening, fully concentrating on what is being said rather than just passively 'hearing' the message of the speaker.
Listening is a necessary component of interpersonal communication skills and is fundamental to developing empathy.
About the Author
Martin Parnell is the Best-Selling author of MARATHON QUEST and RUNNING TO THE EDGE and speaks on having a “Finish the Race Attitude – Overcoming Obstacles to Achieve Your Full Potential”. Martin has written for, or been covered by CNN, BBC, CBC, The Huffington Post, The Globe and Mail, The National Post, Runners World, Men’s Journal, Canadian Business, and Maclean’s.
In a five year period, from 2010 to 2014, Martin completed 10 extreme endurance “Quests” including running 250 marathons in one year and raising $1.3m for the humanitarian organization Right To Play. Find out more about Martin at www.martinparnell.com and see what he can do for you in the long run.