In human interactions, empathy is one of the most powerful forces for connecting with and helping others. Like any skill, empathy can be molded, fine-tuned and managed. And with the time-tested and proven E.M.P.A.T.H.Y. tool, anyone can learn to move up their empathy scale.
The Seven Keys of E.M.P.A.T.H.Y.
E Is for Eye Contact
Making eye contact is among the very first human experiences. When a mother and newborn gaze into each other’s eyes, both of their brains release a shot of the bonding hormone, oxytocin. Feelings of love, connection, and empathy flood into their gray matter. The mother’s eyes also serve as a kind of mirror, reflecting a confirmation to newborns of their very existence.
Likewise, when we adults speak to someone face to face, a process similar to those initial maternal gazes occurs, sending information about ourselves through another person’s eyes.
M Is for Muscles of Facial Expression
Researchers found that subjects who answered a questionnaire with highly empathic responses had much more activity in their brows and eyes when exposed to angry expressions and more activity in their cheeks when viewing happy expressions. The volunteers who measured lower on the empathy scale couldn’t differentiate between the angry and happy stimuli at all. The high-empathy group, as compared to the low-empathy group, also rated the angry faces as expressing more anger and the happy faces as showing more happiness. This seems to indicate that people higher in empathic capacity have a greater sensitivity to facial reactions and facial expressions and that this ability also provides them with a higher sense of empathic accuracy.
P Is for Posture
A person’s posture reveals a great deal about internal emotional states, independent of facial expression. Charles Darwin himself suggested that the evolutionary purpose of emotions is to predispose us to respond in a certain way and that postures are associated with emotional states and are designed to help identify those states. Slumped shoulders can signal dejection, sadness, even depression. Sitting up tall and erect suggests happiness or confidence. Body movements and the postures associated with emotional states may be just as important as facial expressions for understanding the neurobiology and meaning of emotional behavior.
A Is for Affect
Emotions are at the core of all challenging conversations. Without “naming the affect” (the emotion), you cannot be fully conscious of why a challenging conversation is so tricky. Is it because the person feels threatened, suspicious, helpless, angry, disgusted, ashamed, or guilty? You can probably relate to the frustration of calling a customer help line with a very pressing problem that has serious consequences only to be greeted with a sharp response that includes “I need to put you on hold.”
T Is for Tone of Voice
Tone of voice is often more important than the actual words we say and can determine whether there is an empathic communication. In one brilliant tudy, a doctor’s level of empathic tone had a huge impact on the patient experience. Audiotapes of surgeons communicating with patients were filtered so that only the volume, pace, and rhythm of their conversations were audible. When the researchers played these sliced recordings for a group of volunteers, they found that listeners could determine from tone of voice alone which of the surgeons had a history of malpractice claims filed against them versus those who did not. A surgeon’s voice peppered with dominance and delivered with a lower register of concern was predictive of a malpractice claims history.
This suggests that a communication style sensitive to a person’s emotional state, as well as one that promotes bonding with the listener, improves an interaction between two people.
H Is for Hearing the Whole Person
Paying attention to the problem at hand only gets you so far. Paying attention to the underlying issues that people deeply care about is where the golden experience of mutual empathy and understanding comes together.
With your ears, you take in not just the word, but also the prosody and tone. With your eyes, you watch the person’s face and body language. You draw upon your instincts and your “heart” to uncover the emotional intent behind the words. At the same time, you communicate back to the other person trust, respect, and a sense of openness through your own body language.
Y Is for Your Response
Your response isn’t what you will say next. With deep empathic listening comes an empathic response that starts on a physiological level because of our shared brain circuitry. How do you feel when you’re in the presence of the other person or team? Paying attention to this is important because, whether you are aware of it or not, you resonate with the feelings of others.
Your “response” in this case is paying attention to how you feel. It may be a bellwether for how others around you are feeling. And it should be factored in when considering whether or not you’re working in the right place. Understanding this may help you decide to speak up or leave.
The Rise of Digital Empathy
At the start of the text revolution, people used emoticons to represent basic feelings and intentions. It’s precisely because humans rely on the seven keys of empathy that, without evidence of eye contact and facial expressions, postures, or tone of voice and murmurs, we soon find ourselves lost. There aren’t enough data at this point in time to be certain, but we can surmise that seeing a bright yellow smiley face probably activates neural circuits for happiness and likely gets your brain to light up in a similar way as when you see an actual happy face in front of you.
But emojis aren’t a substitute for true empathy. Is a sad face really the appropriate response to a breakup? A post about a death in the family? While they do seem to convey some of the emotional intent and provide some clarity of meaning, emojis are not perfect analogs to emotions. If you send a picture of a frustrated face, the receiver may understand you are frustrated but might not be able to pick up that you are so frustrated you are about to cry. There is no way to distinguish exactly what response you are looking for.
This is why new technologies such as Bitmoji—personalized avatars allow you to portray yourself the way you want the world to see you. Some have developed the capability to customize animated messages that use your voice and reflect your facial expressions in real time. Others are already experimenting with facial recognition software that maps the face to generate personalized emojis. Such advances in technology reveal the fact that people who communicate via text and email are continuing to seek more precise ways of communicating and responding to feelings.
Leadership and the Politics of Empathy
Leaders with tough and curt attitudes may believe they are projecting authority. Surveys of business leaders find that almost 40 percent worry about being too nice, and more than half think they need to flex the muscle of their authority to stay on top. This fear may be more top of mind with women, who are more predisposed to empathic concern but don’t see this trait so often in some male colleagues.
Yet employee surveys say the opposite. They find that leaders are better regarded when they behave with respect and civility. Rather than demonstrating power, strong-arm tactics appear to undermine performance and confidence. So if you want to be an effective leader, empathy is well worth cultivating. When a leader uses the E.M.P.A.T.H.Y. keys effectively, he comes across as respectful and authentic, whether appealing to a group of 10, 10,000 or 10 million.
Self-Neglect Is Not The Answer
Have you ever seen a cartoon where one of the characters gets chased off a cliff and suddenly finds itself flailing in midair? It takes the character a few seconds to realize there is nothing beneath its feet before it panics and crashes to the ground. This is a perfect analogy. Sometimes a person doesn’t even realize that he has run out of resources and support until he finds himself in midair with nothing to hold himself up.
You have to help yourself before you can help others. When your own needs are attended to, you are less likely to be distracted. How much empathy can you muster for someone when you’re feeling exhausted, hungry, burned out, and grumpy?
Self-Empathy Is Not Self-Indulgence
One common reason we resist practicing self-empathy is that we mistake it for self-pity. We view it as a soft and fuzzy euphemism for self-indulgence. The difference is that self-indulgence can become a destructive force that allows you to give in to anything that makes you feel good despite its unhealthy effects, such as excessive use of food, drugs, or alcohol to numb feelings. Self-empathy requires greater self-awareness, discipline, and sensitivity to self-suffering and also a commitment to finding helpful solutions. Self-empathy is the acknowledgment that, like all human beings, you deserve understanding and compassion.
To truly practice self-empathy to its fullest, you must be willing to use it even when you trip over your own feet and make mistakes that leave you feeling embarrassed or wishing you had stayed home. It is an exercise in humility that requires acknowledging that you are human and fallible, and that mistakes are part of the broad human experience.