Empathy is not looking in a mirror

Carol Kauffman's picture Submitted by Carol Kauffman May 15, 2020 - 9:17am
Empathy is not looking in a mirror
Empathy is Not Looking in a Mirror

If we, as leaders, expect others to think/feel as we do, we couldn’t be more wrong.

People respond to stress, and to prolonged stress, in very different ways. Some ramp up, others close down. How we react is different, but that’s not all. We also express and articulate our experiences in very different ways.

Two questions to ask yourself about others (and yourself)
1st: Do they/you get more or less activated under prolonged stress?
2nd: Do they/you get more or less communicative/expressive under prolonged stress?

More activation means more action oriented, driven, more vulnerable to frustration and anger. You want to solve the problem.

Lower activation means you move slower, pause to take a longer view, more vulnerable to anxiety or feeling shut down. You’ll solve the problem but need to think it through.

How deeply we feel and communicate is also highly individual. You often can’t calibrate how someone else is feeling based on what you would be feeling if you looked as calm or upset as they do.

I have a dear colleague, with whom I once shared a thought and her eyes filled with tears.  Immediately I was alarmed, what had I triggered in her? Had I upset her?  Seeing my face, she waved her hand in front of her own. “Carol, don’t worry, “ she said, “this is just what I do.”  I’m not a crier and must work toward accessing and expressing emotion, so I immediately jumped to the conclusion based on how I would be feeling if I teared up – which was utterly incorrect.

You can’t look in the mirror to figure out what someone else is experiencing.

The lesson:

Don’t assume what people are feeling based on your own experience.

How we express ourselves is unique to our personality, some more expressive than others.

A report  of yours looks incredibly frustrated—if it were you it would mean you were about to give notice.  But what is it for them? You might ask—on a scale of 1 – 10 how bad is this for you?

A report of yours looks fine, but is contributing less. You could ask the same thing.  But they may not be able to tell you. Gauge their degree of distress relative to their baseline not yours.

Something happens, you shoot up to a 9 (meaning on a scale of 1 – 10 you are very activated) STOP. Step back, is this reaction the right size for the event?

Victor Frankl wrote: human beings are different because we can separate the stimulus and response.

What do you need to do to create that space for yourself?

I heard a great expression once: “Psychological CPR = Check. Pause. Reflect. Try it.”

How can you create an environment that will allow those that work for you to do the same?

As one of my favorite CEOs said, “I walk around here like a F-ing Zen master, then I go home and tear up shopping bags with my teeth”.