VOL. 129 | NO. 18 | Tuesday, January 28, 2014
Walk a Mile
By Susan Drake
We’re right in the middle of awards season – Golden Globes, Oscars, SAG, and so on. Politics and sequins aside, the performers are rewarded for their ability to capture the character’s point of view and driving force. That takes empathy; understanding or having compassion for the role. Personal power rests heavily on practicing empathy, at home, at work or in friendships.
Here are some examples. Your father lives with you after your mother’s death. He tells you the same story over and over. Which of the following represents the most empathetic reaction? You can tell him calmly and rationally that you’ve heard it before. You can become irritated and leave the room. You can remind yourself now that your mother’s gone, he doesn’t have anyone else to tell the stories to, so you sit down with him and listen. When you understand the story behind the story, and recognize his depression and need to connect, you will earn his lasting gratitude.
Moving to a business example, in our company, we experienced the perfect storm. Several devastating situations hit us within the span of a couple of years. First, my assistant’s husband died of a rare and incurable cancer. Shortly after that, my husband was diagnosed and successfully treated for cancer. One year later, my son-in-law, at age 39, was diagnosed with an incurable cancer and died within eight months.
Suffice it to say that my performance drastically declined; our clients wondered what on earth had happened to our formerly dynamite team. They empathized, but the work still needed to be done. And I empathized because I understood that their work had to come first.
Do you manage people? Anyone on your team a quiet, private person? Chances are, if the quality of their work fades, they may be unable or unwilling to alert you to something personal happening in their lives. Perhaps they’re getting a divorce, or their teenager is struggling with addiction.
Sometimes, people don’t want to bring their personal lives to work. Is it possible to practice empathy without knowing what’s going on? Yes. Offer the person a chance to tell you if you can assist them with anything. Tell them that you don’t need to know what is causing their performance to slide, but that you will offer support if they’ll tell you what they need, such as time off or extra hands to help complete a project. You’re sending the message that the work needs to be done, but you’ve got their back, and that there are resources to make it easier for them.
As you practice empathetic behavior – and it may take a lot of practice – you’ll begin to understand how it feels to be of help and you can bet that at some point, you’ll need empathy too.
Susan Drake is a marketing and communications professional. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.