A Spoonful of Empathy

A Spoonful of EmpathyWe’re in a world right now of ‘rights’ and ‘wrongs’, of super-charged words like ‘hate’ and ‘bigotry’ and ‘distrust’ and ‘fake’.  Of people calling each other out instead of bringing each other in.  Of pointing fingers in lieu of pointing the way.

We tend to put this negativity in a corner as a political phenomenon that can somehow be walled off from our workplaces.  But take a look around you and ask yourselves some simple questions.

  • When disagreements arise, what’s the reflexive response these days? Is the cultural norm more on the side of seeking understanding and points of commonality, or more toward girding for lockdown?  Is that a change from where it was a year or two ago?
  • Where’s the needle on tolerance for – even eagerness for – diversity of viewpoints? Has it gone up, down, or stayed the same over the last year or two?
  • How much energy are people putting into building relationships in the work environment? Is it part of the culture, or just incidental to work?  Is building strong and trusting relationships valued, or an exception?  Who sets that tone?

Are you seeing any signs that there may be ‘creep’ from the external environment that is infiltrating the positive work environment you need in order to be most effective?

E. Stanley Jones, a Methodist theologian, used a good visual analogy for what happens when a workplace environment begins to attack itself: “A rattlesnake, if cornered, will become so angry it will bite itself. That is exactly what the harboring of hate and resentment against others is – a biting of oneself.” It speaks to the cyclic and self-destructive nature of a self-polluting work environment.

If indeed you see some cornered rattlesnake behavior – or better yet, to prevent it ever becoming needed – there’s a great antidote for all these ‘fakes’ and ‘wrongs’ and ‘mistrusts’.  As Mary Poppins knew, a spoonful of sugar always helped the medicine go down.  And nothing helps to turn away the negativity in the workplace than a good dose of empathy.

We talk about empathy as ‘walking in someone’s shoes’.  But let’s break down that experience to get at the power of this simple medicine.  What is it that it brings to both the giver and the receiver (because research shows it offers benefits to both)?

  • Understanding. All definitions and research suggest that empathy is a mutual effort at understanding – a deliberate attempt to seek out understanding of another’s perspective.  And being understood is a human need.
  • Respect. Seeking understanding confers respect on the person whose viewpoint is being sought.  It tells the person his or her views are worthy.  It counters the toxins of such things as perceived bigotry and distrust.
  • Sharing. The act of empathy is a leveling of power.  In fact, people who have high power need often have difficulty with empathy.  In empathy, you put yourself on the same level with someone, creating a sharing of power in order to achieve a common set of viewing points together.  Nothing shaves away mistrust more than deliberately sharing power.
  • Emotion. Although not a requirement of empathy, emotion isn’t stifled in an empathic interaction.  It’s a potential source of the understanding that is shared.  And it is a powerful ingredient the medicine when it is part of the equation.
  • Concern. One of the hallmarks of empathy is concern for the other’s well-being.  It’s what makes the magic in the medicine.  Trust arises from concern for others.  Tolerance and open-mindedness are augmented when this genuine concern is at the core of how we operate.  There is no greater demonstration of empathy than showing concern for someone’s welfare.

Some leaders worry that empathy is something you either have or you don’t – but studies show that practicing it – practicing the ingredients outlined above – actually creates empathy in those that employ those behaviors.  So spoonful by spoonful, begin to practice empathy in your leadership.  At all times it’s wise.  And in today’s caustic external environment, it may make the difference between a rattlesnake lurking in your midst, or the very fine evidence of your organization’s medicinal value spreading outside even your own four walls and into your larger ecosystem.  Think what you could influence!


Written by Marge Combe, VMC Consultant

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5 thoughts on “A Spoonful of Empathy

  1. I find that understanding empathy can really get muddy. Especially with these different metaphors. I find that it boils down to three things.

    1. Do I like this person?
    2. Do I understand this person?
    3. Do I see an aspects of myself and them as being the same?

    If I answer yes to any of these questions, I will more likely be empathetic to them.

  2. So pleased to see the dialogue that this post is generating! This is what we need in the world – more dialogue and discussion and sharing points of view – and less pontificating about who’s viewpoints are right. Bravo to all of you! Keep the discussion going!

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