Part of Kathy Caprino’s series “The Most Powerful You”
Back in 2002 when I began my training and education as a marriage and family therapist, one of the most impactful things I learned revolved around the concept of empathy, and its power to literally transform relationships. I was most taken by the teachings of Carl Rogers and particularly his groundbreaking book A Way of Being. Rogers (1902-1987) was one of the most influential psychologists in American history. He received numerous honors, including the first Distinguished Professional Contributor Award and the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award of the American Psychological Association and was the founder of the humanistic psychology movement and father of client-centered therapy. He based his life’s work on his fundamental belief in the human potential for growth.
In my therapy and coaching work, I was struck by the power of empathy in fostering growth and transformation in others (and myself) and also in how empathy allows us to connect more deeply with other people in ways that without empathy, we simply cannot.
And I saw over and over the other side of this coin – that we can cripple a person’s self-belief and self-trust when we continually attack or demean what they think and how they behave. I’ve seen firsthand that narcissists, for instance, can do terrible damage to their children and others because of their inability to experience empathy. Empathy – the ability to stand in another’s shoes and understand in your heart what the other individual is feeling and thinking, standing witness to that experience without judgment or condemnation – is essential to strong leadership, good parenting, and healthy, productive interpersonal relationships.
A corollary to this is the idea that “every behavior makes sense when you understand its context.” In other words, no matter what you think of how someone is behaving, if you fully understood the context from which this behavior emerged, you could understand it. That doesn’t mean you would condone it or agree with it. It means that standing in their shoes, seeing how they were raised, and how they see the world and why they see it that way, you would have a far greater understanding of who this person really is and why they feel and act as they do.
This is not always easy to achieve. Experiencing empathy, especially when you’re facing behavior or language that feels hurtful, destructive and just plain wrong, takes effort and commitment. But without empathy, we can destroy relationships. We burn bridges rather than build them, and we constrain our ability to connect or even work with people who are demonstrating behaviors or values that we find challenging or in stark contrast with our own.
Based on hundreds of conversations I’ve had with clients and course members, I believe most people in the U.S. reading this will understand exactly what I mean, given what our country has experienced these past few years. Research has shown that we’ve experienced a diminishment of empathy of late. Many families can no longer sit at the Thanksgiving table together because they’ve grown so far apart in their views and there is so much hatred and vitriol towards others who are on the other side of the proverbial “aisle.” And many leaders have inadvertently pushed employees out the door because these leaders have failed to demonstrate and express empathy, compassion and understanding for employees’ inner lives, identities, and living realities of those very people who work with and for them.
I’ve seen that the more you can expand your experience of empathy, the more you’ll be able to engage meaningfully and constructively with others, understand them, and inspire them to grow. And with more empathy, you’re more able to help the people around you to act from greater self-trust, self-acceptance and self-reliance that they need to thrive.
Again, I’m not suggesting here that you accept values and behaviors that go against what you believe and feel is right. I’m suggesting that you develop a more empathic understanding of those you don’t agree with. And I’m suggesting that the more divided we are, the more we need to recognize the totality of each individual, not just a sliver of who they are (such as their political beliefs) when you assess their value as a human being and as someone you wish to be in relationship with.
I’ve seen in my own work that the more I can seek to understand and truly grasp my client’s or colleagues’ inner worldviews, mindsets, and behaviors, the more common ground is possible, and the more we can find a pathway together to connect and collaborate in ways that are beneficial to us both.
There are many researched benefits to expanded empathy, including productivity boosts, improved teamwork, better cultural understanding and competence, elevated customer satisfaction, and more effective leadership. And from a business perspective, studies have shown that empathy is good for business in that it increases sales and loyalty, accelerates innovation, expands market value, and engenders more engagement and collaboration.
I’ve seen that there are four key ways to expand your experience of empathy and these are doable, simple steps that anyone can take, starting today:
Listen without attending to your own agenda and making yourself right
Instead of coming to a conversation with the constant intention of defending your views and agenda, and attempting to validate your own viewpoint, listen. Just listen without agenda. And if you don’t agree, assess if there really is a need and reason to debate with this individual. Do you need to push your ideas on this person? Can you simply attempt to better understand their reality and worldview without judging? Do you actually need to bring them over to your side?
Understand that any behavior and mindset makes sense if you understand the context in which it developed
When you are working with people who are very different from you and share views or ideas that you don’t see eye-to-eye with, make an effort to get a fuller picture of the context of these beliefs. How do they see the world, the problem, the project? How is their dominant action style, for instance, different from yours and how can these differences actually bring about a better outcome in working together?
(For more about the 6 Dominant Action Styles and how to assess your own and work with other styles better, click here to take my Action Style Quiz.)
See the bigger picture of who this person is
The totality of each of us is very vast. We are so much more than our religious or political beliefs, where we live, who we voted for, etc. When you’re in relation with someone who expresses beliefs that are contrary to yours, stop and try to identify how this individual is far more expansive than what you’re talking about in this isolated moment. See them as more than this one issue.
Find something that you can connect with and appreciate in every individual
When I was a new therapist in my first internship role, I had to work with some extremely difficult issues that my clients were bringing, such as their perpetration of domestic violence or even pedophilia, and other illegal and destructive behaviors that I thought were immoral and frightening. I initially found it impossible to connect with them. I just couldn’t find a way to deal with what they were bringing, or even to want to help them.
My wonderful, wise supervisor said this to me:
“Kathy, if you come from a place of judgment, making your client wrong for their behavior, they’ll feel it and know it and you’ll never be able to help them. You’ll never be able to truly connect and reach them. You have to dig inside yourself and find something within them that you can understand, appreciate, and even love. Only then, can you truly build a pathway where they don’t feel hated, judged and rejected by you. You cannot help people if you only sit in judgment of them.”
She was right and as I began to focus on and commit to finding something I could connect with in each of my clients and their lives, our work together flourished.
In the end, no matter how different we are, no matter if others’ behavior and words are not what you believe is right, there is something you can connect with in them.
Why do we need more empathy?
We need it because we’ll all experience greater happiness, success and reward in expanding our empathy for others. We’ll feel happier, more at peace and less rageful, anxious and scared. The world will be safer and less violent place because we’ll have more of an experience of love, connection and understanding instead of rage and judgment.
In the final analysis, we are all so much more alike than we are different. And the one thing we’re almost all universally longing for is validation, understanding and acceptance.
For more information, visit KathyCaprino.com and tune into my weekly podcast Finding Brave. For hands-on help to build a happier career, work with me in my Career and Leadership Breakthrough programs and read my new book The Most Powerful You: 7 Bravery-Boosting Paths to Career Bliss.