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  • Writer's pictureKait Dinunzio

Empathy: You + Me = We

em·pa·thy /ˈempəTHē/ 

The ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

Simply put, empathy is the ability to see the world through someone else's eyes. People with well-developed empathy can understand other people's perspectives, be mindful of others and treat people with compassion, fairness, and respect even if they differ in opinion, life experience, ethnicity, lifestyle, or religion. 

Empathy is a key piece to emotional intelligence, leadership, and a foundational piece to the Pillars of Resiliency. This emotional competency allows you to "read" people (did you know that 56% of "what we say" to others is in our body language alone?

There is a lot of literature speaking to the neurological response to/of empathy and how it impacts us. This is likely the reason why many people stay away from social media or the news; it becomes painful for us to watch people suffering or losing more. For example, a great many people were moved in the 1980s when world famine was peaking and children were dying - organizations like UNICEF and World Vision used multi-faceted approaches to bring people along the journey of a starving child, showing them whittled down to the bone with their little ribs poking out and flies surrounding them or landing on them as they waded through dirty water or ate meager handfuls of food. These visions evoke us to think and ultimately behave differently. It can be traced back to our right supramarginal gyrus. This area of the brain is a part of the cerebral cortex and is approximately located at the junction of the parietal, temporal and frontal lobe. When this part of our brain doesn't function optimally or when we're rushed to make decisions, researchers have found that the ability to be empathetic is drastically reduced. 

I believe we can teach and learn empathy, and I don't believe we have to like or agree with someone to be empathetic. We only need to be able to put ourselves in their shoes and see how it would feel to live the experiences they do. Our world is mired in politics and difficulty as a result of a lack of empathy in the moments we're living now:

  • To mask or not to mask. 

  • To send our children to school or online school. 

  • The colour of our skin and the perception society has of us as a result. 

  • The area of the world or country in which we were raised. 

Not only are these hot topics right now, but these are also the types of things that impact our ability to be empathetic or to receive empathy from others. In addition to that, we must also consider someone's upbringing and family heritage, as well as their neurology and overall mental health. 

I was raised to be a very empathetic person and early on in my career was often finding myself in a space of being over empathetic, where someone's problems became my own in my desire to serve and help them be better, do better. That's not empathy - that's removing accountability from someone to do the hard work of self-improvement. This is a fine line, and this is something that can take years to master. 

Some key tips to being more empathetic that I often share with leaders include: 

  • Be present - shut the inbox; put the phone down. 

  • When you ask someone how they're doing, make it genuine, and pay attention to their answer and body language. 

  • Listen to understand not to respond. 

  • Ask open-ended questions. 

  • Manage your own emotions and expectations of yourself and the other party (or parties) 

  • Suspend judgement and don't take things personally; if it's not about you, don't let it become about you. If it is about you, remain open to hearing what's going on for that individual and try to understand why they feel the way they do. 

Empathy is part of our Platinum Level Leadership model, we embedded into all of our change programs; it's something we practice every day with one another and with our clients. The objective is always to be able to understand so that as we define a change, we can bring people along the journey of change with us, recognizing that each person is unique in their skills, talents, and background. 

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