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Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Empathy Experiment

Could Empathy Change Our World?

It started last night as I packed for a business trip.  My daughter begging me not to go.  She's ten and my business travel is much harder now that she can accurately express her distaste for my schedule.

I try not to tell her I "have" to go because ultimately my career is my choice, so I tell her that I love my job and this trip is an important part of my career.  I don't apologize because I don't want her to think this trip is being "done to her".  So I just listen.  I listen to her complain, whine and cry a little.  Then I hug her and I say, I know you don't like this honey. I know it feels uncomfortable for you when I'm gone.  I'll come back as quick as I can and we'll have a great weekend.

All morning I try to quietly validate her feelings.  Give voice that I can hear her, that I care about her.  It doesn't change her feelings about my trip but it also doesn't escalate any further like it has in the past. Stay calm, listen with your head and your heart.  Give space and pay homage to the feelings.

Empathy, sweet empathy.

I arrive at the airport, check in, all good.  I stop at the gift shop to get a bottle of water.  I approach the counter and the lady says, "I wish we would just close this place down."

I look around to see if she's talking to me and since I'm the only other person in the shop, I try to solve this puzzle.  I don't respond because I'm not sure what the right response is.  So I give a little half smile, empathy-like.  She continues, invited by my smile.  "All we ever sell is water and gum, might as well shut this place down."  Now my business consultant head is curious.  Does she make commission from these "Hoosier Daddy" t-shirts and US Weeklys?  So I ask, "does it matter that you sell other things?" I'm trying not to take it personally that I'm pulling out a $20 for my Smart Water.  I did buy the big bottle, almost $4 bucks! She continues with frustration, "Oh yea it matters, they'll call and harass us, yell at us, tell us this store is a disgrace." I simply say, "Oh, I see." Still the half smile, still with caring.

Then she realizes that I'm listening.  Really listening.  I think this takes her off guard. She then says, "I'm just fed up, do you ever get that way?"  Absolutely I tell her, absolutely.  She continues but her frustration is shrinking as she talks,

"I'm tired.  All I do is work.  I feel like I just want to sit down somewhere and cry.  Do you ever get like that?"  Again, absolutely, "sometimes it helps to sit down and cry." I admit to her.

"I worked all night at FedEx last  night, came in here this morning, everyone just tells me how bad I look.  That's not helping, now I feel insulted. I know I look bad, because I feel bad, I just want to rest."

I stop myself from judging her negative attitude and think that maybe she feels bad because her attitude might be contributing and I realize, I know nothing about her real story.

I simply say, "yea, a body needs rest, a mind needs rest, your soul needs rest. I bet you do feel run down."

Then she says, "I'm just venting."  I think she's still more than surprised that I'm listening, with my heart.

I tell her I'll say a little prayer for her that she gets some much needed rest tonight.

She tells me she only has 2 hours before she has to go to her other job after this one.  I smile a little and say, "Do me a favor, in those 2 hours don't do one load of laundry, don't do the dishes, don't do anything but lay down and take a little bit of rest."  She smiles, "I do need to take a bath."  I smile back and say, "Okay bathe first, it will make your short nap even better."

I gather my change, turn to leave and say, "take care of you."  She smiles back.

Maybe this little conversation didn't have earth shattering impact on her and she's probably forgotten about me completely by now but I couldn't help notice that in that short time she softened, just a little.

Makes me wonder, could we really solve many of our issues with the secret weapon of empathy?  I know there are days I'd pay some big money for a healthy dose myself.

Let's try, just you and me and see what happens in our own little experiment.

Empathy Starters:

You have to stop talking and start listening to practice empathy.

Empathic Listening is not just waiting for your turn to talk.  It's listening with your head and your heart.  When listening empathically, you're listening to understand how the other person is feeling as much or more as what they are saying.

Don't interrupt and don't tell your story and don't dig around asking questions. Look them in the eye, heart to heart and connect, listen, care.

Let them peel their own onion.  Life is full of layers and complexity.  When you truly listen you give people the space to peel back those layers and think through this complexity outloud.  By listening empathically you allow people to peel back those layers and to think through things in a way they can sometimes solve their own problems.  Often it's not about solving a problem, it's just about being heard.

Your true intent counts more than your technique with empathy. If you listen with your heart, people will feel your intent. That's what matters.

So what do you say, ready to give it a shot?

I'd love for you to post your experiences here.

"The deepest need of the human heart is to be understood."  -
-- Dr. Stephen R. Covey