Friday, March 1, 2013

Personal Resilience 101: Cultivate Empathy

Empathy is full presence to what's alive in the other persona at this moment.
~John Cunningham~

Daniel Goleman has been quoted as saying, "Self absorption in all its forms kills empathy, let alone compassion. When we focus on ourselves, our world contracts as our problems and preoccupations loom large. But when we focus on others, our world expands. Our own problems drift to the peripheral of the mind and  so seems smaller and we increase our capacity for connections - or compassionate actions".
People don't care how much you and I know until they know how much we care about them. Each time that we interact with another person, that person is collecting impressions of us that influences how they describe us to themselves and others. Empathy is associated with "seeing the world through the eyes of another person", "walking in another person's shoes". The greater our capacity to demonstrate empathy by sensing how others are perceiving our ability to understand them, the greater our capacity to create rewarding and satisfying relationships.

Robert Brooks and Sam Goldstein writes in The Power of Resilience, "Empathy facilitates communication, cooperation, respect and compassion. It provides the strength to change negative [internal] scripts as we seek to enhance our interaction with others". As a fundamental feature for the development of a resilient mindset, empathy does not come naturally for most of us. In a world in which many people live by the attitude "what's in it for me", practicing empathy towards others is often placed on the back burner of personal traits to cultivate. And, yet, most of us long for more richer relationships.
We have to take responsibility for what we can do to create safe emotional spaces for our relationships to be nurtured and grow. The first step begins with an earnest desire on our part to seek understanding before we assume that what we think is always right about a person or situation! We have to begin to develop our social and emotional intelligences and be willing to modify our behavior with the purpose of building and maintain supportive and satisfying relationships. Great relationships have to be nurtured in the fertile soil of understanding, acceptance and empathy in order for them to develop into the emotional connection that is possible. Great relationships do not occur as a result of happenstance.
In their book, The Power of Resilience, Brooks and Goldstein encourages readers to assess and strengthen their capacity to practice empathy everyday with the following questions:
  1. How do I hope other people would describe me?
  2. How do I interact with these people so that it is likely that they would describe me in this way?
  3. How would these other people actually describe me?
  4. How do I interact with these people to cause them to describe me in the ways that they do?
  5. Is there significant discrepancy between how I hope people would describe me and how they actually would describe me?
  6. If there is a discrepancy, how can I change my attitudes and behavior so that others will begin to describe me in the way I would like to be described?
Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other's eye for an instant?
~Henry David Thoreau~
Overcoming A Sense of Separateness
Most of us rarely think about how we come across or how others would describe us. Certainly, if we are honest with ourselves, each of us can recognize changes that we have the power to make that can improve our ability to be empathetic towards one another. Does this mean that we will hit the bull's eye 100%? Surely not, we will always be works in progress. Yet, we can begin to be more mindful of our interactions with other people and how our attitudes and behaviors play a role in how we experience our relationships.
Regardless of what state we are in, their is always common ground to be found among one another. Finding and building on what is common vs. divisive in our daily interactions allows us to forge effective relationships throughout our life.
In my life, I have found that it is beneficial to seek common ground in my interactions with others, instead of assuming that "I know" before seeking to understand someone. We will not move beyond our assumptions, if we aren't willing to be open to the idea that empathy begins with seeking to understand people right where they are. The idea that we are separate from each other and that our actions have no bearings on one another is false. What we do influences others in a positive or negative manner. Each day we choose which it will be by our attitudes and behaviors.
You Will Not Become A Doormat
Our mindset can be changed. We don't have to allow the "detached" attitude prevalent in our society dictate how we approach our relationships. We can begin to practice empathy by showing loving kindness towards ourselves. It's hard to display empathy towards others when we aren't showing it to ourselves.
Practicing empathy as a way of life doesn't require that we become door mats. Empathy is  not the same as giving in, not being in tune to your feelings, or not establishing healthy boundaries in relationships. Brooks and Goldstein asserts,
"Emphatic people do not refrain from giving others feedback or from setting appropriate limits, but rather they do so in a way in which others are most likely to listen and respond positively to what they have to say".
You can validate a person's feelings, yet disagree with them. You can set limits and enforce them without guilt. You can love yourself without being selfish and self-centered. You can demonstrate empathy without adopting other people's emotions as your own or trying to please everybody. Empathy helps us to take into consideration the feelings of others in making intelligent decision and taking the responsibility to act in accordance to our values and priorities.

Putting Empathy Into Practice
"Is it fun and rewarding to live and work with me?" "Am I more difficult to interact with than necessary? These questions help you remain mindful of how your interaction with others influences the state of your relationships. The quality of your relationships is crucial to your overall sense of happiness and well-being.
Consider how your words and the tone in which they are spoken affect people. I  have to monitor how  the tone that I use is being interpreted by others simply because I have a deep voice for a woman and it has created numerous misunderstandings in relationships. I have learned from these experience that "it's not always what you say, but how you say it that matters most". When I miss it, I am quick to apologize because I am aware of how the tone of my voice can seem harsh, especially when I am extremely stressed or tired.
When people enjoy being in your company, when they feel accepted and respected by you - they begin to care about what you know. By taking personal responsibility for how your attitudes and behaviors influence the people in your sphere of influence, your will become much more emphatic to the needs and concerns of others. When you have this understanding, you are more apt to contribute value in their lives.
Stop waiting for someone else to change. Everyone is not going to see you as a positive light in your circle. Accept this reality. If you are consistent with practicing empathy towards others, you will expand your influence within your circle of influence. Remember, each interaction that you have with others create memories. People may forget your name, but they never forget how they felt in your presence.
Why do you think empathy is important? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below. We can learn from you. Thanks in advance, Jackie.
It's Your Move ~ Aspire Higher