Is there a better introduction to empathy than the beautifully animated RSA Short Video with Dr Brene Brown? The Power of Empathy is a short video which sets out the difference between empathy and sympathy. If you’ve not seen it, you can find it here. It’s well worth a view. It has a great message and it always makes me smile, too!
Dr Brown introduces some work from a UK nursing student, Therese Wiseman, who studied a range of diverse professions where empathy is important. She found there to be four attributes of empathy:
- To be able to see the world as others see it
- To be non-judgemental
- To understand another person’s feelings
- To communicate your understanding of that person’s feelings
You may remember that, in an earlier post I talked about great communication requiring connection. This is hugely important in any situation where we want to create a trusting relationship – whether personal or business. It doesn’t matter whether you are an entrepreneur trying to win a new client, a coach trying to understand your athlete, or a politician trying to win a marginal seat. If you want the other person to trust you, creating a connection is essential.
People often talk about putting themselves in the shoes of the other person. Empathy is going many steps beyond that – a whole mile worth of steps. We have to be prepared to walk a mile in those shoes, no matter how uncomfortable or different to our own choice of footwear. It’s not enough to look at the shoes and sympathise with the blisters they’ve created. In my earlier post about communication, I suggested that failure to communicate with our audience creates a disconnect. One of the causes of that disconnection is sympathy. While “sympathy drives disconnection, empathy fuels connection” – another key message from Dr Brown’s short video.
Communication isn’t the same thing as connection, which is why it is helpful to create a separate post around the importance of empathy in creating quality connections. If you know that empathy isn’t your strong suit you’ll be pleased to hear that Dr Brown expresses empathy as a skill rather than a quality – meaning it is something that we can choose to practice and improve.
Empathy, as we’ve already said, is about being able to see the world as others see it. This can be really hard to do when we are stuck in our own model of how the world operates. There are, however, huge advantages in being able to take a step back and see situations from a range of perspectives – a highly useful skill if you have any responsibility for negotiation or conflict resolution!
I find empathy features heavily in the work that I do with clients and I use a particular NLP technique to help them create the physical and mental space to think through the various perspectives of their given situation with other people. When we use physical movement to look at a situation from different angles it is easier to create a more detached perspective which is why physical movement is important in this exercise.
If you’re interested in trying this out, you simply need space for three chairs. Chair one and two should be quite close to each other. It is helpful to place the third chair some distance away (but still able to view the other chairs) – depending on the space you have to work with.
Before you sit in any of the chairs, have a think about the situation you want to explore. Think about the other people involved – get a clear image of them in your mind and recall the situation clearly too. What’s the problem that you are having with this other person? What would you like to achieve in working through this exercise – set yourself a clear outcome.
Step 1: Sit down in Chair One and describe the problem from your own perspective. How does this situation make you feel? What do you notice about your own behaviour? What thoughts come to your mind?
(When you have explored everything that is useful to you, take a moment to look out of the window or look around the room and allow yourself to be distracted from your reflection in Chair One.)
Step 2: Sit down in Chair Two and describe the situation from the other persons perspective. Try sitting as they would sit – and notice how it feels to sit as they do. Do they sit still or are they fidgeting? What position is their body in? How does it feel to move your head or hands or feet as they do? What do they believe about the situation? What do they think? How do they feel about it? Try and answer these questions as though you were speaking on their behalf by noticing what information you have gained from sitting in their seat. Try and avoid any thoughts that start “I think what they would say is”…. Really take your time to notice what is going on for them as they sit there.
(When you have explored everything that is useful to the situation, take a moment to look out of the window or look around the room and allow yourself to be distracted from your reflection in Chair Two.)
Step 3: Sit down in Chair Three and now take advantage of the physical distance you have created with the chairs to look at both you and the other person sat in those seats. This is your fly on the wall moment! From a distance, what do you notice is happening in the relationship between you? As you look at the situation from this new position, what advice would you give to yourself to solve it? What can you now do differently having seen these different perspectives?
Step 4: Now return to Chair One – your own seat. Think about the information you have gathered in all three positions and work out what action you will now take to resolve the situation. If you need to revisit any of the seats – feel free to do so.
This technique is highly popular with clients who are working through my Art of Personal Effectiveness Framework, where empathy is a big component, because it is a great way of helping them to explore difficult situations deeply and effectively. It is also a really helpful exercise for gaining a deeper understanding of your ideal client as well as being popular with writers who are trying to see the world through the eyes of their reader. So it has a lot of applications where you need to see what your client sees, hear what they hear and feel what they feel! I’m told it’s pretty cool for parenting too!
I hope that you find this exercise useful. I’d love to hear how you get on with it as empathy is a great skill to get ‘in the muscle’ – a bit like blogging really! If you would find it more useful to work it through in person and have the added value of being coached through the experience, do please get in touch. I would love to help you as working with a coach definitely adds a different dimension – and perspective!
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