Empathy is, for me, the toughest part of Emotional Intelligence to try and improve.
Why do I find empathy so hard? Well as much as I want to put myself in the shoes of the other person, it is in fact very difficult to truly appreciate, for me a white man, what it is really like to be a woman, or a person of color, etc. I probably have very few experiences that can directly relate to being treated unfairly because of the color of my skin or because of my sex, so how can I truly empathize.
It is hard but here are three tips that you can use to try and improve your empathy. They will help, but you have really make the effort. Otherwise you will be stuck with your perspective and will struggle to see the situation through the eyes of another person. I actually prefer that expression, the common putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, because just putting another pair of shoes on can be easy, but to see things through their eyes requires a lot more, effort, patience, and perseverance.
Challenge Your Prejudices and Stereotypes
We all have prejudices and stereotypes, and these are all based on our experiences, and they are not necessarily a bad thing, but they do stop us from seeing things as others with different prejudices and stereotypes. So we need to challenge ours, and to recognize them and where they come from, the better we understand them, the more we will notice our stereotypes coming in as we try to see things as other see them. But we need to be open to their thoughts about people. Imagine having a boss that you really, really like, and someone is trying to explain why they re causing them stress. If we cannot let go of our stereotype, we will start to explain why they are wrong, or how things are different to how they see them. Now we are trying to put them in our shoes, which is not the goal of empathy in this situation.
Be An Active Listener
We need to listen to what people say, understand their body language, hear their words and feel their feelings, rather than just wait for our turn to speak. We should ask questions, to improve our understanding, but questions that seek further information, not ones that look to change their view or highlight different possibilities. We need to take in all of the information and process it as it is sent, not filter it through our experiences.
I know that sometime I can be closed off emotionally, I try to suppress my own feelings of vulnerability, But when I do that, I also close myself off to understanding the feelings of others. The more I share, the more open I am about myself, the more I find I better understand the feelings of others. It also gives them the confidence to share more, and also possibly relate how they are feeling to the feelings that I had, which then helps me better understand.
Empathy is hard to master; it takes real effort and commitment. The more we can improve the better the leader we can be.
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