“Feeling with the Heart of Another”

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to take a class about Emotional Intelligence and the EQ-i 2.0 Model. There are fifteen qualities that make up emotional intelligence, but one I would like to focus on is empathy. Empathy is a powerful but frequently misunderstood tool: it is not sympathy, and it is not simply agreeing with someone. Instead, think of it as a vital connection with another person: you acknowledge their feelings, you try to understand why they feel that way, and you form a bond with them. Alfred Adler describes empathy as “seeing with the eyes of another, listening with the ears of another, and feeling with the heart of another.”

Empathy, and other qualities included in Emotional Intelligence, have a direct impact on job success and personal relationships.

The good news is that empathy is an ability, and you can improve this ability. Let’s take a look at an example scenario:

Anna has had a long day at work. She had to stay late to finish a report because her coworker didn’t help. She is frustrated, tired, and bad traffic only adds to her stress. When she walks in the door, her roommate Sophie greets her and asks how her day was. Anna starts complaining about her coworker, the report, and every idiot on the road who doesn’t know how to turn on his blinker. Which of the following responses from Sophie would be empathetic?

  1. I can send you some tips on how to avoid procrastination. Maybe that can help for next time!
  2. Oh, I know exactly what you mean. My coworkers never help me out, it’s so annoying.
  3. That sounds really frustrating. Tell me about how you ended up finishing the report.

The first response does not show empathy because Sophie indirectly blames Anna for the work. Maybe Anna did procrastinate, and Sophie is right, but there are more tactful ways to suggest this to avoid Anna feeling defensive and refusing the well-intended advice.

The second response is sympathetic, but not empathetic. Sophie sympathizes and feels bad for Anna, but she doesn’t really try to understand her feelings. Instead, she turns the focus on herself, and Anna doesn’t feel heard.

The last response shows empathy. Sophie tries to understand Anna’s frustration and asks for more information. This helps Anna open up and talk more about her day. Notice that Sophie isn’t agreeing with how Anna feels or any actions she took: she is simply acknowledging Anna’s emotions.

It can be harder to be empathetic when you have a strong emotional reaction to the situation.

If this is the third time this month Anna has set herself up for a similar situation by procrastinating, Sophie is probably frustrated at hearing the same complaints. She may be more likely to choose the first option because clearly Anna needs to make a change in her working style. As I mentioned before, this is not the most efficient way to help Anna change. It is also not Sophie’s responsibility to help Anna change! On the other hand, a thoughtful email with an article about avoid procrastination that is sent a few days later is much more likely to be received well. Take a deep breath and count to three before responding. Emotions only last 30 seconds, but the effects can last for years!

Empathy with quote

A few tips to improve your empathetic abilities:

  • Pay attention to your own emotional responses. You can’t understand someone else’s emotions if you are unaware of your own.
  • Work on your listening skills: don’t simply think of your reply while someone else is speaking. Ask questions, and avoid distractions such as phones, TVs, or other people.
  • Take the EQ-i 2.0 Assessment: The assessment scores fifteen subscales and provides feedback on how to balance the categories. It can be especially beneficial if conducted as a group workshop with coworkers.
  • Read The EQ Edge, by Steven J. Stein, Ph.D. and Howard E. Book, M.D.


One comment

  1. Michael says:

    always something valuable to think about. Also, just because you witness someone (friend or not) having an awful reaction to another and judge their outburst as inappropriate, you don’t know what has precipitated them emotionally – maybe they just heard something sad about someone in their family, or heard some difficult news. We are nicest when we assume they are dealing with more issues than we are aware of.

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