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What Has Breathed New Life Into All My Relationships

It's a power that you, too, can harness.

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gif illustration of woman holding a wrench fixing her heart
Zara Pickens
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I am an engineer by degree. And yes, that means I’m likely the worst person to tell you about empathy. Or, at least by the reputation of my left-brained career.

The truth is that engineers are trained to think objectively. We are instructed to lead with logic and reasoning. However, it was a rare occasion that anyone within the field suggested I consider empathy and compassion when making decisions. This led me to create my company Lively Paradox, where I serve as CEO, a professional coaching business that focuses on practicing empathy in leadership.

It is important to note that I struggled to be empathetic until after I had some pretty significant life-altering events. One of the telling things about the old me is that my colleagues once referred to me as “The Nickinator.” It was a combination of my name and the Arnold Schwarzenegger film, The Terminator, which was about a cyborg assassin. It was a joke in some ways, but in other ways, my coworkers were spot on. You’d think I would have been embarrassed.

I wasn’t.

In fact, I found great joy when I walked into a room and people were slightly afraid. It was a leadership example I had seen, respected and began to emulate. I represented the opposite of empathetic leadership.

Nonetheless, there are two ways to strengthen your empathy muscles. One way to develop greater levels of empathy is to have your life shifted. Some examples include growing older and suddenly needing a caregiver, or perhaps being faced with a significant healthcare challenge.

For me, it was the death of my mother by a drunken driver and the subsequent murder trial (that lagged on for years) that sparked my empathy journey. Those two events caused me to think about people in more humane ways. They caused me to begin to consider what a person might be going through before making judgments about them.

But here’s the challenge: It is impossible for me to give people life-altering events in order to build their empathy muscles. So considering empathy can be learned, there has to be another way to create a more empathetic world. Luckily, there is!

I discovered the way when one day I was having a conversation about social justice with a wealthy businessman. He said to me, “Dr. Price, I understand what you’re saying intellectually. I was hoping that you would help me understand it emotionally.”

At first, I was stunned. After all, we were not alone; there were dozens of people in the space. Secondly, I’ve never heard someone express themselves in this way. In essence, he said, “I understand, but I do not care.” That catapulted my desire to find out if I could, in fact, help people learn to care.

The answer is no. I don’t know how to teach people how to care, but I can help people get to greater levels of understanding, and through that understanding, build greater levels of connection and compassion. That is empathy — and it often leads to caring.

Many times the problem people have with empathy is related to how people define the term. People often think empathy means feeling sorry for someone or even trying to find the good in them. That isn’t the definition. Empathy simply means having the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person. It is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and understand their thoughts, emotions and experiences

It’s quite simple. But it’s not necessarily easy because it requires intention.

Why should you be intentional? Because empathy is a very powerful tool to have in your skill-box. The power of empathy lies in its ability to help us build stronger relationships, and create a more compassionate and understanding society.

As an example, in healthcare and other helping professions, empathy can be particularly important for building trust and rapport with patients, clients and families. Empathy can help to create a sense of safety and security, which could be crucial for individuals who are dealing with difficult situations or who are in a vulnerable state.

Whether you work in healthcare or don’t work at all, here are five things you can do to harness your personal empathetic power:

1. Pay attention. For short periods of time, pay attention to what you notice in the faces of other people. Notice what emotions you observe in people’s faces. Try to imagine what emotions they are feeling — good and bad.

2. Listen empathetically. This means listening for understanding rather than for accuracy. In simple terms, try to understand what another person is trying to say rather than focus on each individual word they are actually saying.

3. Remember when. When someone is expressing an emotion, try to remember a time when you felt that same emotion. Once a memory surfaces, try to remember how you would’ve wanted to be treated when you felt that same emotion. Then behave accordingly.

4. Take empathy walks. Put yourself in the shoes of another person by experiencing what they experience. As an example, do you know someone who’s riding the bus to work? Ride the bus one day. Know someone who uses a wheelchair? Use it one day and make a note of what you learn.

5. Give yourself permission to feel. In my personal journey, I realized that I had been trained to be stoic and had many ways to regulate my emotions. The problem is that I didn’t have a vast emotional vocabulary of things I truly felt. My list included sad (I didn’t allow myself to feel this emotion often), happy (not too happy though), and “fine.” I often felt fine, which is not an emotion at all. It is virtually impossible to connect empathetically if you don’t first honor your own emotions.

My own empathy journey took a lengthy span of four years to genuinely hone this skill. In our fast-paced, instant-gratification society, this timeline might seem extensive. Ten years later, I recognize that I wouldn’t have chosen it out of sheer will. My intellect often acted as a protective shield, inadvertently masking a glaring deficiency in empathy. I didn’t have much pressure to change. But today, my enhanced listening skills have breathed new life into my relationships. People, even strangers, confide in me, often expressing an inexplicable comfort in my presence. This profound level of understanding and empathy is what our world needs more than ever. I wholeheartedly invite you to embark on this transformative journey with me.

Do you believe yourself to be an empathetic person? Why or why not? Let us know in the comments below.

Follow Article Topics: Relationships
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