“If I Understand You Correctly,….”: How The Pros Put Empathy Into Practice

All summer long, we’ve been examining empathy as part of a greater overall study of emotional intelligence in the workplace. We’ve distinguished empathy from sympathy, we’ve demonstrated how empathy applies to your career, and we’ve shown the undisputed connection between one’s bias and their personal “terroir”— which is crucial to understand before true empathy can ensue.

Now, lets jump in and consider some important rules for putting empathy into practice. These deliberate but organic processes are culturally universal and will set you on a path toward intellectual and emotional harmony with the folks you spend the most time with inside and outside of the home.

Recognize Another’s Reality as Their Truth

The way another person sees the world is their reality. We often assume that they’ve deliberately chosen every aspect of that personal outlook, but as social sciences have revealed, much of an individual’s reality is dictated by their geographic and demographic life experiences. Therefore it’s a bad idea to judge their reality as inferior just because it’s in contrast or contradiction with your own.

For instance, it’s fascinating how our own perception of the truth is deeply baked into our personal history. In Alan Alda’s book If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look On My Face, I recently learned the “Theory of Mind”, which explores a crucial moment in a child’s cognitive development. Experiments reveal that before the age of four and a half, a child likely assumes that what she knows is the same as what everyone else knows, including adults. This is because the child hasn’t yet developed a theory about what’s happening in someone else’s mind, including the possibility of deception. But once the Theory of Mind develops at around age 5, it becomes a tool the child carries with her through life in order to decipher people’s intentions, for better or for worse.

So to connect this research with empathy, I may not know something simply because you know it, but I might assume that you think like me based on my personal terroir. Conversely, I may believe that I understand you based on my own terroir. These beliefs lead to assumptions, and we all know what assumptions make out of us!

Zoom Out and Tune In

To understand and ultimately empathize with another person is to know where they “come from”. This will lead to more effective interaction with that person, whether they be a colleague, a friend, a family member or a stranger. Consider some ways to zoom out from your own perspective and realize for yourself that there’s a whole big world out there, full of billions of points of view. Here are a few tools to get you started:

Learn something about your colleagues and their terroir by simply asking them the types of questions you would ask to understand their roots (where they went to school, if they have siblings, etc). Put yourself into their minds when you get their responses. Notice how you shift your communication style and language as you begin to understand their reality more clearly.

Watch something on TV that’s different from what you’re typically drawn to. Tune into an unfamiliar radio station, whether it be talk or musical in format. Find traditional ethnic restaurants in your neighborhood and ask questions of the staff about the origins of the food.

Don’t be a dolphin. Interact with others at a business networking event whom you wouldn’t otherwise approach.

Step outside some of your habitual daily patterns. Ride the bus instead of taking a subway or taxi. Go to a farmer’s market instead of the grocer. Do some people watching in the local park.

Put away your smartphone for an afternoon and observe the world around you with 2006 eyes (back before there were smartphones). It’s not a waste of time. In fact, it might be the best move you could make toward practicing empathy.

In my next article, I’ll take you through some additional rules for putting empathy into practice by understanding other people’s truths.