Want followers? Want to get more from a negotiation than you go in expecting? Want more loyal relationships with your employees? Want people to be committed to your cause? Want deeper friendships and romantic relationships?
Empathy is the key. It’s the ability to understand what another person is feeling, even if their situation is unlike yours. Empathy is the foundation for relationships, for anticipating others’ needs, for anticipating hot buttons, and for being able to help others. It’s even where great inventions and innovations come from—understanding someone else’s world so thoroughly that you solve problems they didn’t even realize were solvable.
Empathy is a skill, and it can be learned. It’s usually learned face-to-face, but in the wonderful world of technology, we don’t get nearly as much facetime as we once did. But it’s still possible to learn and exercise your empathy skills, explicitly.
We’ll use gender and race as examples, because we can all find someone of different gender and race, and this exercise will help us glimpse into their very different worlds.
In day-to-day empathy, you can even use this with very similar people. Because even people from very similar circumstances can have dramatically different experiences.
Their reality may not be directly knowable
My female friend Vinda told me she never walks home alone after 11 pm. I scoffed. I’d lived in that neighborhood for over ten years. We’d even walked home together. It was perfectly safe… no catcalling, harassment, or anything. Ten years.
I began casually asking women who lived in that neighborhood if they walked home alone. My friend Lauren is a black belt. I asked her, and she looked at me as if I was nuts. “Of course. I’ve always had to do that. All women do that. Why do you ask?”
That’s when I realized that my life as a man is fundamentally different from my friends’ lives as women. When I’m with them, the world is one way. When they’re alone, it’s different. And it isn’t knowable by me, because my very presence changes it.
Find out about their life
Ask them about their life. Let them tell you, and trust the answers. This exercise isn’t about deciding whether you agree with them; this is about learning how they experience their life, from their perspective. Ask them to tell you about what it’s like to be at home, at work. What do they worry about? What do they take for granted? Where do they feel safe? Unsafe? Loved? Ignored? Noticed?
If you have an opportunity to learn about and observe their life directly, take it.
Imagine their life from outside
Once you have an idea of their life, make a mental movie of what their life is, as reported by them or as you’ve seen it first-hand. Things to consider:
- What is it like to live in their neighborhood? Their apartment? Work in their office? What is their commute like?
- Who are their friends? What do they do together? What clothes do they wear? What do they do for fun?
- How do other people treat them on a daily basis?
- What do they worry about? What are they confident about?
For a short time, I was a “Big Brother” in the Big Brothers / Big Sisters program. My “Little Brother” was an African-American boy. When we would walk down the street together, people would turn and stare. Pretty much everywhere. It was a freaky experience for me, as I’d never experienced that. As a black boy, he experiences that every single time he walks through a predominantly white neighborhood.
I imagined what it’s like to live his life. Where he’s never experienced walking through a group of white people without having them look at you with curiosity or suspicion. Where the only people he can relax with are people of color, with cultural norms, language, hopes, and fears that aren’t the same as white people.
Now, take their perspective, literally
Now that you’ve got the movie of their life, rewind it, and mentally step into it, so you’re looking through their eyes. Roll the movie, and notice what their experience is like. The notice the feelings that you/they have as they live that experience.
In one of my more dramatic examples, I was talking with a friend who had said “Yes” when they meant “No,” and ended up doing drugs they really didn’t want to do. My friend explained how important it was to be liked by the group. And in that situation, from their perspective, they thought saying “No” would make them look scared and foolish in front of their friends.
Succumbing to peer pressure is really not a big issue for me. So I decided to empathize.
I imagined the scene from the outside: a group of friends sitting around in a circle, passing around drug paraphernalia. Everyone’s laughing and joking, and saying, “C’mon, just give it a try. We’re all doing it; it’s fine.” I imagine my friend cringing back, but nevertheless accepting and taking the drug.
Stepping into the movie. I suddenly felt a clenching in my chest. A thought came to mind: “I really don’t want to do this, but if I don’t, I’ll be an outsider. They’ll stop inviting me places. I’ll be all alone.” My friend’s fear, longing, and conflict; it all became real to me in that moment.
Your results will vary; that’s a good thing!
Empathy is individual. My Little Brother’s experience may not apply to all black people. Maybe just black men. Or maybe just him. And maybe my imagination of what it’s like to have all eyes watching distrustfully is nothing like the way he experiences it. You can always describe your experience and ask. With practice, you’ll get better at it. We all have the ability to feel empathy Your brain is built to make this work.
Give it a shot
There are a lot of chances to practice this empathy technique. Start with friends and family members, people you already know well. Then branch out. Try someone of a different race or religion. Try someone of a different race or gender. Try someone on the opposite side of a political issue. Try someone of a very different socioeconomic class.
This will be a stretch. You’ll need to learn something about the other person’s situation in order to gain the insight. While you can still get a surprising amount of benefit by simply constructing your own idea of what their life is like, you’ll get the most by seeking out the other person, asking questions, and listening. You won’t be listening to engage or react, however, but to learn. And to trust that, at least during this exercise, they’re reporting their real experience to you.
Empathy is the foundation for human relationships. It’s what lets us build bridges to people who aren’t like us, and even to people who are. Take the time to build your empathy muscles explicitly.