I have spent years of my life in the absence of empathy— in giving and receiving. Now, I have lived several years practicing empathy in my daily life, and I can tell you I am better because of it. I believe the people around me are, too. And if I, a trained engineer with few natural empathetic tendencies, can learn to be empathetic, anyone can.
My empathy journey began with my interaction with a stranger who became my mentor and friend, Dr. Ian Roberts. He was the first person to cause me to consider empathy as something that might hold value—but that consideration didn’t happen overnight. In the beginning, I knew there was no way I was going to hop on his empathy train, but I was curious as to why he believed in it so strongly and chose to give it so freely.
We met by chance.
I happened to sit down near Dr. Roberts in the airport, and I overheard his phone conversation. From my end, it sounded like he was trying to convince people to do what they had already committed to do, and they didn’t seem to be moving. He ended the call, and I peppered him with unsolicited questions.
If they’re not doing their job, why don’t you just fire them?
Why are you giving them another chance? And why do you even want to?
That was the ignition for my empathy journey and the phase we call “curiosity.”
After many coaching conversations with Dr. Roberts, I began to think there may be something to this empathy thing. However, while I continued to implement Dr. Robert’s coaching assignments at work and I was willing to concede that empathy may hold some value, I secretly still believed that in business, utilizing empathy could weaken an individual or a company’s ability to meet intended goals. This is what we refer to as the resistance and reluctance phase.
I continued to test my belief and gradually increased my empathy practice in small ways at work. And when it provided positive results, I would call Dr. Roberts excited to share my surprise that this empathy thing really did work. I could finally recognize empathy’s benefits for me, the person I offered the empathy to, and yes, even to the accomplishment of outcomes. This was my cautious investment phase, in which I committed to practicing empathy on a daily basis.
And then I got stuck for a bit. I got stuck because engineers are trained to be accurate. In my field, accuracy can mean the difference between a little too much of the active ingredient in your medicine or a bomb going off at the wrong time. I took pride in my fact-based accuracy and saw it as my greatest strength. Empathy, it seemed, didn’t always work off what I knew to be the facts. My colleague Stacey Watson, Licensed Professional Counselor, helped get me unstuck.
Stacey explained that when I offer empathy to another, what I believe to be the facts is irrelevant. “If you want to understand where a person is coming from, you must listen for understanding not accuracy.”
It was a real challenge for me to continue listening rather than address what I believed were inaccuracies, but with practice I got better. Now, I listen more and scan for inaccuracies less. I have come to understand another’s perspective even when it was vastly different from my own.
I reached the final stage of my personal empathy evolution: Full Investment. This final stage of my empathy evolution is not the end of my empathy journey. In many ways it is the beginning. I now sit from a perspective of respect for the power of empathy.
With that power, I am personally accountable for my actions whether empathetic or not.
With that power, I am able to teach others logical empathetic strategies that are effective.
With that power, I can obtain exceptional results in a humanistic way.
If you are not a believer, call me so we can talk about how empathy can be the spark for every other leadership initiative you’ve tried.
Build more empathy muscle: Become an empathy engineer.