No single factor offers more potential promise to Change Agents as they guide impacted people through the transformation process than their ability to empathize with others.
Truly putting yourself in the shoes of another person can be summed up as understanding their “frame of reference”.
Our frames of reference are the lenses we look through when we see everything the world presents for our consideration – including the changes that people would like to see us adopt.
The meaningful exercise of empathy requires six things:
1. Slow Down. The first and most critical skill in building your ability to empathize with others is to build your capacity for patience. Most of us are so busy trying to get everything done that we fail to slow down and even notice that others may think differently than us about a given topic. Try stepping back for 5 minutes at least once each day to create some space for practicing the art of patient, empathetic listening.
2. Be Serious: Set down your phone. Look up from your computer screen and look the other person in the eye. Assume those you interact with have thought through their opinions and want to be taken seriously. Give them your full attention and they’ll start to believe you actually care about what they think.
3. Be Curious: In order to be truly empathetic, you have to actually want to know how other people feel about things. Practice building your capacity for curiosity. Ask questions. Avoid making statements that primarily promote your own stances. Try to understand what experiences may have contributed to another person’s opinion.
4. Be Real: Yes, it’s true that you can try faking empathy, Politicians do it all the time. They wear plaid shirts when talking to farmers, promise to cut taxes when talking to middle class voters and kiss crying babies – all for show. But for most of us, the risk of being discovered as a fraud by someone we may routinely see in the hallway is enough to encourage us to keep things real.
5. Avoid Judging: Being non-judgmental starts with accepting that other people are free to think and feel as they do. Practice listening to another person describe their perspective without automatically judging them. Since empathy is more of a right brain activity than a left brain thing, be ready to hear some things that don’t match your idea of rationality or logic. Listen twice as much as you talk and you’ll start to really enhance your ability to empathize.
6. Verify: Finally, don’t forget to communicate what you’ve learned back to the person in a way that demonstrates you understand where they’re coming from. Avoid correcting them or trying to convince them to change their mind. It can help to rephrase what you think they said – just to make sure you heard things as they were intended. Heads up: This step can be clunky and painful at first, but it can be the most valuable part of the whole empathy process because it seals the deal by helping others believe that they were heard and understood.
Putting Yourself in Another’s Shoes: A psychologist friend of mine once told me that empathy requires you to set aside your own needs long enough to fully engage another person and actually experience their needs, opinions and emotions as if they were your own.
The Wrap: Practicing the art of empathy is a critical skill for Change Agents and Sponsors of Change.
Demonstrate that you can empathize with another person’s frame of reference and you will have opened their mind to considering the change you wish to have them adopt.
Ignore their frame of reference and you may just build a wall that will make your change very hard to accept, or even consider.
Three Word Thursday: Today’s post is the first in a new series called “Three Word Thursday“. In each article, we’ll cover a simple transformative concept that can be summarized in three words. The premise is that the easier the idea, the more likely we’ll remember it and apply as Change Agents. Leave a reply below or use this Contact link to send me any three word ideas you’d like to have included here.
Questions for Chatter:
- Have you ever worked for or with someone who really struggled to empathize with people? How did this “blind spot” impact the results they were able to achieve in a team setting?
- Describe a time when a Sponsor demonstrated such a clear understanding of your frame of reference that it reinforced your belief that they really “get it” when it comes to driving change.