A segment of a training film I viewed in grad school has stayed with me for forty years.  I can visualize it even now.  And even now I feel the same discomfort and urge to look away.  A schizophrenic mother was bottle feeding her 5-month-old infant.  She kept absently and methodically trying to slide the nipple into the child’s mouth.  Parents know how infants can squirm around refusing the bottle until they settle into feeding.  Not the case here.  The child was clearly finished and in considerable distress at the mother’s distracted yet insistent ministrations.  In fact, the bottle that the mother kept forcing was by this time empty.

This mismatch illustrates a failure in empathetic attunement.  One need not be schizophrenic to experience either end of this failure.  We do it all the time.  We have it done to us all the time.  And we do it in business whenever we value production over people or hold a “shareholder supremacy” philosophy.  Simon Sinek cites empathy and perspective as the hallmarks of leadership.  Brenè Brown sees vulnerability as the core of all emotions and feelings, and the birthplace of empathy.  Even Oprah has weighed in: empathy is the ability to relate to and connect with people.

Empathy is a measure of Emotional Intelligence and the cornerstone of business Soft Skills (See Archive: April 2020 Blog).  Paraphrasing the psychological and popular literature, empathy is simply tapping into feelings in ourselves when connecting with another.  Brenè Brown fine tunes it into connecting with the feelings under an event, rather than the event itself.  I’ve never given birth, but I was squirming right along with that baby.

Interestingly and according to a great blog (Brain Pickings: December 14, 2016) by Maria Popova, the conception of empathy is a little more than a century old and originated in art: It only entered the modern lexicon in the early twentieth century, when it was used to describe the imaginative act of projecting oneself into a work of art in an effort to understand why art moves us. Tolstoy called it the emotional infectiousness of art.  

With whatever you resonate: art, music, nature, or interpersonal interactions, enhancing your own empathetic attunement will increase your satisfaction and relating to the latter, your effectiveness.  A basic formula includes: 

– paying attention when listening to what is being said both verbally and somatically/behaviorally (instead of rehearsing our own responses while someone is speaking)

– tapping into our own feelings beneath the event or topic being shared  

– resisting the impulse to fix, advise, or pull the focus to ourselves by immediately sharing our own experience in an effort to connect

– communicating (verbally or behaviorally): “You’re not alone”.

Taking it one step further, consider the difference between empathy and sympathy illuminated in this short, animated video: https://youtu.be/1Evwgu369Jw.   

Stay tuned for next week’s Blog where we finish up (for now!) our focus on Soft Skills as we consider the topic of Vulnerability and Business.

Weekly Challenge: Work on catching yourself at formulating your response and really focus on what the other person is saying.

Supporting Your Success!