Almost every single day we are faced with a moment that requires choosing empathy or not. But this choice is so much easier said than done. If you’re like me, there are many days, and situations, that I find to be much harder to choose empathy than others. While some days it may feel easy - a choice you almost make subconsciously.
At SEEK, this is a choice we are called to make every time we step our foot through the door. This doesn’t just mean every time we step in-field and get our hands dirty. Rather, we actively pursue a culture of empathy everytime we approach each other internally. When the person next to us expresses their weight of stress, we can share in that emotion with them. Empathy is a core principle we build our foundation on, and our people can safely communicate their emotions because they trust the outcome. Because of empathy, we’ve established a trust with each other.
So we asked our people - what does empathy look like for you everyday? And what we saw in response were three clear, common steps across the board.
1. Listen to connect, not respond.
Oftentimes when someone is sharing something personal with us or relaying an emotion, our immediate reaction is to do just that: react. We are listening to a person, but are we really listening if all we are doing is trying to come up with the next way to respond? When we empathize with someone, we are not just setting ourselves up to articulate the “best answer,” but truly hear the person, on a deeper level, in order to take on their perspective and establish an authentic connection.
Author, researcher, and speaker Brene Brown states, “Rarely does an empathic response begin with ‘at least.’” She goes on to describe how it’s almost better to thank someone for sharing what they have with you rather than attempting to come up with the “right” thing to say. “What makes something better is a connection - not a response.”
Our researchers at SEEK apply these same listening skills not only to connect, but to further help the person they are listening to.
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2. Recognize the emotions at play.
Empathy can become one of the hardest choices to make when we don’t agree with another person’s truth. We may hear what someone is expressing, yet we are unable to get to the underlying emotion behind it because it is simply not our own. But that’s not what empathy calls for. If we can connect to the emotion beyond the surface of what is being said, it then becomes easier to see something through another’s eyes.
The election period was a prime example of when majority of the country found empathy to be one of the most challenging choices there was to make. People we’re closest to were suddenly standing on the other side of a clear, divided line between us, and the idea of stepping over and understanding was one of the last choices we wanted to make. This is where empathy becomes hard, so we opt for what’s easier. We distance ourselves from people who think differently than we do rather than trying to understand that their motivations and beliefs could come from a deeper place that’s true for them. The same reason your motivations and beliefs are true for you.
So how do we deeply connect with those who are different than us? We zoom in. We listen, recognize their emotion and connect to a time we felt that very same emotion. “In order to connect with you, I have to connect to something in myself that knows that feeling.” -Brene Brown.
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3. And we keep asking questions.
What’s the reason they believe so strongly in this issue? What experience do they have that makes it so deeply rooted in their decisions and actions, giving them the same right to stand on their turf as much as you have a right to stand on yours? We ask to understand, not to fight back. And we do it with an open mind - open to learning something new beyond our own opinions and values. Because just like you, there is a reason they feel this way.
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If you can listen to the feeling, recognize a time you experienced that feeling, and ask questions to understand that feeling on a deeper level - you will no longer have to sacrifice your own beliefs for a connection. You can have both.
Once we’ve done the hard work of empathy, and once we’ve stepped into the space and perspective of another, it’s then we can communicate those emotions and let someone know, “I’ve been here before. I know what it’s like.” Only then can we see them, hear them, and find potential to best help them the best way they need.
This is why empathy requires courage. Empathy isn’t always easy, but the ability to build strong, human connections is worth the hard work in itself. And if we’re willing to roll up our sleeves and step into the uncomfortable, only then can we take on empathy in the moments that approach us every single day.