"Empathy isn't just understanding another's position, it's connecting to the emotions that underpin that experience which is critical if we want to be influential with others."
~ Adapted from Brené Brown

“Empathy isn’t just understanding another’s position, it’s connecting to the emotions that underpin that experience which is critical if we want to be influential with others.” ~ Adapted from Brené Brown

Empathy & Influence

If you have read a book on leadership recently, you may have noticed that the concept of empathy has been spoken of as a critical aspect of success. Frances Frei, a dean at the Harvard Business School, recently did a TED Talk on Trust in which she listed empathy as one of the three essential elements of trust, and Brené Brown has highlighted this component of interpersonal communication in her recent book “Dare to Lead” as well.

Unfortunately, despite this recent focus, many people will tell you that being empathetic with someone, especially when they are vehemently disagreeing with you, is one of the hardest things to do. Therefore, I want to take a closer look at this skill to determine several things:

1. What is true empathy? 2. Why is it important? 3. Why is it so rare?
4. How can we become more skilled at using this in our communications with others?

1. What is true empathy?
This is an important question, because most think it is either feeling sorry for someone or simply being able to understand another’s perspective. Unfortunately, this can lead to conversations where someone says, “Okay, I can understand where you are coming from, but…” This will almost always result in continued conflict because (a) the word “but” tends to negate anything that comes before it, and (b) understanding isn’t enough to convey true empathy. Plus, many people can’t even say that they “understand” because they are afraid that this will be misconstrued as agreement.

Brené Brown describes empathy not as simply understanding another’s experience, but connecting to the emotions that underpin that experience. I really like this distinction because it speaks to the depth of courage, curiosity, and caring that being truly empathetic requires.

2. Why is it important?
Have you ever been engaged in a conversation with someone and you could tell by the way they were talking that “they didn’t get it?” Chances are that you weren’t really interested in what they said next because you didn’t think that they understood the situation in the first place! This is why true empathy is so important. If we want them to be truly interested in what we have to say, we must first free them from the need to convince us that they have a right to believe what they believe, and to do this, we must do more than just say we understand.

3. Why is true empathy so rare?
For those who follow my “Life from the Top of the Mind” philosophy, you know that this has to do with how our brains process information. In other words, when our limbic system interprets some situation as dangerous (such as someone disagreeing with us in a highly emotional manner), it engages the lower, fight-or-flight part of the brain (the brainstem) which triggers our anger, resentment, frustration, and stress. Of course, when we react in this way, this triggers their lower fight-or-flight brain, and we wind up “banging brainstems,” which means that no one is listening, and the potential for a solution-focused conversation is almost nil.

4. How can we become more skilled at using this in our communications with others?
First, we must understand that to access the interpersonal skills and problem-solving skills, we will need to be effective, we must be coming from the clear, confident, creative, and compassionate part of our brain, the neocortex (or what I call the “Top of the Mind). This is the first step in my six-step model for effective communication, and means that we must become clear about the qualities and characteristics we want to bring to the conversation, regardless of what they say.

Once we are coming from this more purposeful part of who we are, we can begin to listen and respond with true empathy by connecting with the emotions that underlie their perspective because we are no longer being triggered by their resistance. We can access the courage, curiosity, and caring necessary to truly empathize, and this will allow them to relax a bit as they realize that they no longer need to convince us that they have a right to their beliefs.

From here, we can begin to create solution-focused conversation by blending what is important to them with what is important to us in the form of what I call “neocortex,” or “Top of the Mind” questions.

Of course, all of this is easier said than done, because few of us grew up with this being taught and/or modeled. Therefore, if you would like me to come and teach this process to you and/or your organization, I suggest that you contact me through my website at www.BillCrawfordPhD.com, because until we can engage people from this truly empathetic perspective, we will be forever “banging brainstems” which not only shuts down communication, it can damage relationships for years to come.

~ All the best, Dr. Bill