Empathy: A Strength, Not A Weakness

My friend was at the grocery store the other day and casually shared with another shopper that she was reading Spark the Heart: Engineering Empathy in Your Organization. Prior to learning the title of the book, they were engaging in typical pleasantries. Then the book title changed everything. The woman never let my friend express another thought. She proceeded to share all the reasons why we need less empathy in the world, not more. Chief among her reasons was that “people are lazy and need tough love.”

People may be lazy and they may also need tough love. I am curious what would happen if we demonstrated empathy to “lazy people”? What if instead of judging them, we took the time to understand what might be their motivation? Are we accurate at measuring the laziness of others? I wonder if the answers to these questions would help us make better decisions. I am especially interested in what would happen if those “lazy people” worked or lived alongside us. I can tell you what I know for sure, calling them “lazy” isn’t doing much.

I had a boss who once said, “Reality is tough. Leadership is love.” The world would benefit the moment we start to lead with empathy. It is part of our jobs as leaders to recognize that the people who work with us are, in fact, people. That realization is what opens us up to the idea that by engineering more empathy in our own lives, we create space to actually improve outcomes for our organizations.

I used to be terrible at reading the room and reading people. It was easy to do because I spent little time trying to empathize with people. Instead, I chose to move through the world with indifference. There’s a story I share in the book about my best friend at work. He once ended up in a precarious situation that I was oblivious to and because of my lack of understanding, I put my foot in my mouth in a way that cost me immediately and for years to come.

A lack of empathy cost me. Whether you know it or not, lacking empathy is costing you, too. The easiest thing in the world is to toss around judgements like “lazy” to describe people. It is far tougher to lean into empathy. It takes discipline to pause and ask questions or to try to understand things from another person’s point of view even when you don’t agree with their perspective. You know what else it takes? Courage!

Empathy requires courage. To have empathy we must acknowledge and sit with some of our own difficult feelings, so that we may better understand and connect with those around us—even the laziest people. It is likely you will have to hold up a mirror to those times in your life when you have been lazy. Tapping into those moments will improve your decision-making and the way you communicate with people. Your own self-awareness will help you find the balance between what is true and what is kind.

When I reflect on those years, I am amazed at how much I allowed the rational “If I think it’s true, it’s fair game for discussion” thinking to guide my behavior and neglected the impact my “truth” had on other people.

Today, I have the courage to practice empathy, so that I may strengthen my relationships with the people and world around me. Do you have the courage to practice empathy in your daily life?

Build more empathy muscle: Become an empathy engineer.

Originally posted on Forbes.com

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