Finding My Footing: A Few Real Lessons in Empathy

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  • by Kellie Coppola

We typically ask respondents the question “If your life were a book, what would this chapter of your life be called?” My title would be: Finding my Footing.

I graduated college in May, 2017. Little did I know that meant being strapped in for a post-grad roller coaster ride of figuring out who I am, who I will be, where am I going, and who is coming with me. The answers have been anything but firm, and just when I think the ride might become smooth, it proves me wrong. The ride has been filled with loss of gravity, and sudden twists and turns into moments of total freefall. Looking back on the journey so far, I’m realizing just how important empathy has become in allowing me to catch my breath, and to realize that I’m not on this ride alone.

“Empathy allows one to quickly and automatically relate to the emotional states of others, which is essential for the regulation of social interactions, coordinated activity, and cooperation toward shared goals.” - Frans de Waal

Empathy is at the heart of everything we do. Empathy is more than just a state of feeling, it is a tool, a process that when used honestly and fully can truly make an impact in the office and in my personal life. While we learn the basics — head, heart and gut, weeding through what’s yours and what’s theirs, etc. — it has little by little helped me uncover some things about what it is, what it isn’t, and how to meaningfully own empathy in my life.

1. Cognitive Empathy Requires Your Full Self.

The kind of empathy we use in our work is cognitive empathy— the conscious choice to understand how other people are feeling and to act on their behalf. And for that, we need to use our brain, allow it to open our heart, and then we have to be compelled to act from our gut. Sometimes the action is tangible, visible; however, sometimes it is just being there. Stopping short is just that. We have the ability to use our own humanity and hyperawareness of another’s to do good and walk in-step with the person we’re connecting with. But not taking in all of the underlying cues, not unlatching our vulnerability and letting them into our hearts, not acting on the true tensions we find underneath, is a missed opportunity - a tripped connection. Making that connection, though, is completely up to us.

2. Empathy is a Hard and Scary Choice.

Sometimes, when taking in everything about another person, we might be upset by what we find. Sometimes we will reach the end of the empathic process and act on our gut, do what we feel is best for the person we have invested our whole self in, and they will still reject us -- for whatever reason, or perhaps no reason at all. Some people will choose to not reciprocate empathy on our behalf because they might be so wrapped up in their own tension that it clouds how they relate to you and inhibits their ability to understand you fully. Knowing these things going in makes the choice one of even higher stakes. Empathy takes courage. At any point in time, we might not be ready, or we might be consumed to the point of drowning. That’s why I’ve found that it’s so incredibly important to take stock of what is going on in my head before letting someone else in. Just like forming any relationship, if we’re not in a space where we are able to be vulnerable to another in a certain circumstance, we are doing them and ourselves a disservice. Even when we do open our hearts, sometimes we need to build a dam to stop a flood. While empathy means crawling into the hole with a person to understand where they are, it also means we have to be able to get back out. Today might not be the day, and that doesn’t mean the courage dies. As long as we are consistently courageous, the door is open for empathic connection. And even though I get paid to choose empathy at work, it has allowed me to be more ready to choose empathy outside office doors.

3. We All Empathize Differently.

Empathy is still new to me. I’ll try to articulate the feeling in my gut, and sometimes my words are met with blank stares. I can’t help but wonder “am I wrong?”

The short answer: probably not.

We all come into different points of projects with the tools at our disposal. Some are closer to the projects than others and are able to guide the rest of us away from assumptions that might come from lack of familiarity. However, while we’re all humans, we may all empathize differently. When we take information into our head, we have to filter out our biases. But when it comes to how it affects our hearts, we use our own experiences to make sense of it all. Some things I might pick up on are things my coworkers might not and vice versa. Ultimately, we all come from the same place, but we’ve taken different paths to get where we are. Just because someone might be drawn to a different nuance of tension doesn’t mean yours is wrong. Just because someone might say, “I would’ve done xyz for that person,” doesn’t mean you made the wrong choice. Empathy is iterative and it requires practice. What we can do in those points of difference is look deeper and search for a connection.

4. We Can Use it to Understand Others, and Even Ourselves.

As we build relationships, large- and small-scale, we often create unspoken bonds with others. The fine print is the fragile expectation that those we bond with will stay solid. We never expect the glass to break; we rarely expect our trust to be violated. We break down the walls and sometimes our towers get invaded. It’s languishing and it hurts -- a kind of searing pain to our very core. It’s in these moments where choosing empathy is the hardest. Why should we want to understand someone that hurt us? Why should they deserve more from us when what we’ve given has been exploited?

I’ve been toying with these questions a lot, and I’ve come to two conclusions. One, they might not deserve our empathy. Two, we might deserve to be empathetic. Empathy can be used selfishly because it helps us understand why. If we’re upset, it’s easy to close off and it’s easier to name the hurtful person the villain.

But particularly in areas where we don’t have closure, how do we undo the hurt? There’s empathy for that. By taking ourselves out of our own hurt and placing ourselves in another’s existence and embracing their situation, wants, needs, and desires, we can begin to put our pieces back together. It doesn’t mean you have to be okay, nor does it mean you have to become a moral relativist and forgive. It means you can understand enough to act, and sometimes, the best course of action may just be for yourself.

At the end of the day, empathy has taught me this: we’re all just people using the tools we have to make decisions that get us where we want to go. Empathy is just one of those tools -- not an easy one, but one worth using. We’re all human and empathy allows us to embrace the beautiful connections we all share. It allows us to find our footing when life gets shaky, and to even stand together. Empathy is right there at our fingertips every day, and I sincerely hope each and every one of you, at some point in your lives, grab onto it and hold it tight.