We all like to think we can show empathy.
We like to think we can hear someone’s narrative and ‘stand in their shoes’.
For many of us this might be true. We may have honed our awareness skills, fine tuned our listening skills, twizzled our emotional connection antennae. We are empathetic.
But are we? Really? To what extent is our ability to show empathy merely a product of our ability to find meaning and sense from our lives and relate it to another’s experience? Another person brought up in the same language, the same country or world area, the same belief system, the same society? Meaning and sense making may be intrinsically linked to our own life experience. So maybe empathy has geographic and cultural boundaries?
If you sat down with a Australian aboriginal, or with a Chinese gentleman aged 80, or a native Inuit child from the snowy north, would you be able to truly connect with the meaning in their lives? Could you read the signs in their faces? Connect with the significance in their tale? Understand their underlying value and belief systems?
Over recent years we have added emotional intelligence (EQ) to cognitive intelligence in the form of IQ. Terms we are all familiar with.
Now, cultural intelligence (CQ) is emerging as a third intelligence. Can we really be open to learning and meaning making when we meet another culture, another society, another upbringing? Or do we have to learn to do this? And without it, is empathy merely a hollow aspiration, or a distorted falsehood?
I need to shop for food today. Saturday isn’t a normal shopping day for us – too many people in the aisles. The aimless people.
Anyhow, it occurred to me, what if I could shop for emotions? What would be on my list? What do I want more of and what do I have enough of in the cupboard?
Do I want more joy? More caring? More trust? More serenity? Do I need a little more sadness? A big pot of empathy? Do I need to refill my anger? Maybe I would like to take some lonely back to the shop?
Am I baking a relationship cake and need some extra courage? Some more selfishness, a little daring, some strong, rather than medium, fun? A big box of compassion perhaps, a soupcon of adventurousness and a large tin of hurt? Plus a garnish of warmth?
Maybe I’m about to change role and I need to stock up on thrilled, thoughtful and excited, buy a refill pack of embarrassed, but also purchase some ashamed and not good enough seasoning?
Or maybe I’m being forced to change role and need some hope, a little vindictiveness and a splash of inadequate, to go with the large supply I have at home of feeling used?
What would be on your emotions shopping list?
Empathy is the new black.
Schools are teaching empathy to children. Leaders are encouraged to display EQ as much as IQ. Many books explore building empathy. It’s a core coaching skill. Developmental psychiatrists and psychologists are exploring the roots of empathy in animals and the deep nature of its place in our humanity. True empathy is good. Deeply human.
To be clear empathy, as opposed to sympathy, could be described as feeling with someone, rather than feeling for someone. “I feel your anguish” as opposed to “I am sorry you’re hurting”.
It is standing in their shoes to experience their emotions.
But empathy requires thoughts as well as feelings. It is also a two person activity. So to be truly empathetic we need to balance thought and emotion as well as balance self and other. Recognising and sharing in someone else’s complex emotional state is in itself a complex inner experience, and it requires considerable self awareness and control to walk that line, be useful, be safe, keep them safe.
Otherwise empathy becomes a trap.
We can feel we are being held hostage by the other person’s feelings. Imprisoned in our own thought / feeling response. Balance requires us to have the self awareness and the dexterity and subtlety to pay attention to another’s needs whilst not sacrificing our own needs. We need to be able to recognise what is our stuff and what belongs to the person we are empathising with. Also what emerges in the soup of the empathetic interaction. What needs to stay in the soup, neither theirs nor ours.
Putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes is something the receiver can find deeply rewarding. Addictive even. That puts the onus on us to know when to extract ourselves from their shoes. And how.
Equally, overly empathic people may lose the ability to know what they want or need. They may have a diminished ability to make decisions in their own best interest, experience physical and psychological exhaustion from deflecting their own feelings.
We need to be able to stand in our own shoes too.
It is world random acts of kindness day on November 13th. It seems as though we need a day for everything these days. Maybe we could try it without a special day?
There was a story the other week about two guys who spend their time topping up expired car park tickets using their own money. They spend £60 of their own money each week.
Doing something kind for someone makes you feel good.
But it seems there’s a science to it.
Scientists have long known that the hormone oxytocin plays essential physiological roles during birth and lactation with mother and baby bonding. Animal studies have shown that oxytocin can influence behavior too, prompting voles to cuddle up with their mates, for example, or to clean and comfort their pups. Now a raft of new research in humans suggests that oxytocin underlies the twin emotional pillars of civilized life, our capacity to feel empathy and trust.
I held my umbrella over someone’s head whilst the drizzle fell earlier today.
Kind, I thought.
So give it a go. Don’t wait for the official day, do something randomly kind now. Get a shot of warmth. Hormonally dose up on your oxytocin.