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PostPosted: Dec Sun 17, 2006 2:34 pm    Post subject: Empathy Reply with quote


Walking in Other People's Shoes: If You Don't, You Won't Get Very Far

Empathy--the ability to walk in other people's shoes--is one of the emotional competencies that is crucial for success in today's ever-expanding world.

Why? Well, we all know what it's like when we interact with people who don't understand us. These folks don't seem to have any sense of who we are, what's important to us, or why we do the things we do. Often these folks are not just clue-less, they are also judgmental and disapproving. Naturally, we keep as much distance from them as possible, and solid professional and personal relationships are impossible.

In today's world many of us have daily contact with people from diverse backgrounds very different from our own. They have different beliefs, values, customs, and world views. Even among people with similar backgrounds, there are wide variations in personality, world view, values, beliefs, abilities, and interests. If we are going to relate successfully to the large number of people that we come in contact with, we have to stretch ourselves to have, at least, some sense of what it is like to walk in their shoes. That's where developing empathy comes in. And doing that is not always easy!

There's an all-too-human tendency to assume that everybody experiences the world as we do and that our world view is THE TRUTH. When people behave differently than what our world view would predict, our reactions can range from incredulous to condemning. "He's just a wimp." "That religious practice is disgusting." "She just needs to pull herself up by her bootstraps." "What a weirdo." "You know you can't trust any of them." Those people are just immoral and sick."

I believe that limits on our empathy had sociobiological survival value in the far distant past, so we are hardwired to have limits on our empathy. World conditions have evolved so that lack of empathy is now destructive, but our biology hasn't caught up. This is one major reason why developing empathy is so difficult.

Other reasons include a reluctance to put in the hard work of expanding our mental bandwidth to understand other people's experience. Another common reason is a belief that if you empathize with differences, you will have to give up you own beliefs and standards. While it is true you may end up doing that as your world view expands, you are not forced to. And often these newer perspectives feel much better than the previous ones.

Expanding empathy is also dangerous because that means opening up to others' pain, and we are very reluctant to do that. It is much more comfortable to be clue-less or condemning.
But, alas, if you want to be a successful leader in your career and workplace, you have to develop empathy in order to relate well with diverse employees, clients, business partners, customers and other stakeholders.

In your personal life it is easy to avoid this diversity, if you choose. But even there, empathy is crucial because of the diversity of personalities, talents, learning styles, and interests that exist in those close to us. So how do we grow our empathy?

1. Read about or get some training about groups that most baffle you or you feel most judgmental about.

2. Spend time imagining what it would be like to walk in someone else's shoes. When you experience feelings of superiority or disapproval, use them as a flag to do this imaginary work.

3. Get to know people different from you--particularly those you are uncomfortable with. As you do, ask them about their lives, their experiences, their culture, their beliefs and values. Folks are usually happy to open up to someone who is genuinely interested in them.

4. When conflicts arise, assume benign intent until proven otherwise. Seek to understand what is behind someone's seemingly inexplicable or hostile actions.

Remember, as you open up to other people's worlds, you don't have to leave behind your own values, beliefs, standards, or morals. Just because I empathize with the importance of the religious beliefs of some of my employees and make accommodations in the workplace to support to support their practice, does not mean I will change my religious beliefs. Nor does it mean that I will let the accommodations be unduly disruptive to the workplace. Empathy just lays the groundwork for creative solutions to conflicting interests. Empathy is such an important key to success in today's world. I believe it is also the key to world peace. As we enter the month of December, which is a holy and celebratory time for so many in the world, give yourself and others the gift of a commitment to ever-increasing empathy.

2000 Ann McAllister, Ph.D. All rights reserved. Permission is granted to reproduce, copy or distribute Coaching. Ann McAllister, Ph.D., can be contacted at
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