I Feel Your Pain – February 2023

First published nationally in the Business Journal Newspapers

I was boarding a plane recently and going through the usual airline passenger worries, I hope my seatmate has showered in the last week. I hope I get at least one armrest. As I was stowing my carry-on (I got an overhead bin!) I saw a young father holding a baby approach a man sitting in an aisle seat a few rows away. “Excuse me. I am trying to have my family seated together. Is there any way you would be willing to switch seats so we could all sit together?” The response? “Not my problem. This is my seat!” Now, this was only a 50-minute flight, and the father was asking to exchange an aisle seat for an aisle seat only a couple of rows away. The actual impact on the rude guy would have been minimal. Still, he wanted what he wanted. I had a nice laugh when, moments later, the flight attendant asked to see the rude guy’s boarding pass, and he was in the wrong seat. The father got to have his family together while the rude guy sat right across from the restrooms. Was I petty by getting up and using the restroom five times during the flight?

No this isn’t a column about manners. It is about what many psychologists consider to be the most advanced state of human development—empathy. No other trait—intelligence, critical analysis, or strategic thinking—can match empathy when it comes to leading others. First, let’s make clear the distinction between empathy and sympathy. While sympathy is the ability to be moved by someone else’s experience, empathy goes one step further; it allows us to put ourselves in the person’s shoes—to feel what they are feeling. Social psychologists believe that empathy is one of the tools that allowed humans to flourish as a species.

The rude guy on the airplane was certainly capable of empathy. Most humans start developing the trait as young as twelve months of age. He just chose to deny it to the young father. Even violent criminals and terrorists have even scored high on scales of empathy. The difference between them and the general population is that they reserve empathy only for those in their inner circle, which justifies their heinous acts.

Leaders who wish to influence, negotiate, or resolve issues must foster the ability to empathize with everyone they work or do business with. It is not enough to understand someone else’s situation on a cognitive level, empathy requires leaders to internalize others’ plights. Some people resist empathy because they see it as a surrender of some kind, a weakening of their personal power. However, according to Dr. Daniel Gruhn et. al. in Empathy Across the Adult Lifespan, the ability to empathize with others is associated with what is called a positive interaction profile; an advanced ability to work with others toward a positive outcome.

However, cultivating empathy is not as simple as saying to yourself, “I am going to be better at feeling what others feel.” Although empathy is developed as we mature, it is not something you are either born with or not. Empathy is a discipline, and like all disciplines, it grows stronger with practice. The first step to developing empathy is to foster a sense of curiosity in others. Empathetic people really listen when others talk. And they ask questions to learn more. They don’t just make small talk; they show an active interest in others’ lives. Empathy also requires us to confront our biases. All humans have biases, but empathetic people work to keep biases out of the driver’s seat. They recognize when their preconceived notions are shutting them off to others’ experiences.  Empathetic people are also more willing to step out of their comfort zone. Being in unfamiliar territory forces us to experience life from other people’s perspective.

To the final point, stepping outside of our comfort zone, psychologists have discovered that people who are shy or fearful are also less likely to engage feelings of empathy when in stressful situations. Fear causes us to exert control over situations, cancelling out empathy. In short, empathy takes courage; the strength to let others take the lead.

Good leaders avoid thinking, Why in the world would anyone think that? Instead, they ask, I wonder why they think that?

An expert on influence and an international keynote speaker and trainer, Stevie Ray helps business leaders influence situations toward positive outcomes. He can be reached at www.stevierayspeaks.com

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