My mother taught me an empathy lesson when I was five years old that stays with me today.
I had always wanted a kitten and when a neighbor’s cat had kittens, I was finally allowed to have one. I picked out my favorite and couldn’t have been more excited! I took it home and played with it all day. When dinnertime rolled around, I struggled with what to do with the kitten since I didn’t want her to run and hide in places I wouldn’t be able to find her. We had a huge safe in my house, so I contemplated putting her in there, but I was worried she would be afraid in the dark. So, I climbed up high and put her on a shelf from which I knew she would be too scared to jump down. I figured it was just for dinner so I could easily get her down when I was done eating.
But during dinner, my mother hears the cat crying, gets up from the table and sees the kitten on the shelf. She pulls me into the room and asks, “What were you thinking?” I explained very logically that I wanted to make sure I could find the kitten easily after dinner.
My mother pointed out that the poor kitten was terrified, and suddenly, I got it. I understood the experience the kitten was having, not just my own experience worrying about finding it. I was horrified as at that moment, I had a deep understanding of the cruelty that I just imparted on the cat without realizing it.
My mother forced me to return the kitten to the neighbor and amid sobs, I told her I was too young to care for it. One year later, I was able to get another kitten and every day, I considered the experiences that cat was having. That is my first memory of empathy, and that memory has never been lost on me. I am now acutely empathetic for any living creature: humans, animals, even plants.
A Selfish World
Empathy seems to be a trait that is not aging well with the youth. Millennials have long been referred to as the “me generation.” A famous article in Time cites several sources which show that narcissistic and individualistic traits in those born from 1981 to 1996 are higher than in previous generations. The article states, “Millennials got so many participation trophies growing up that a recent study showed that 40% believe they should be promoted every two years, regardless of performance.” Other studies show that Millennials often demonstrate less concern or sympathy for the misfortune of others.
There’s no debating the research, and I’m not here to disparage Millennials, but since they were the biggest age grouping in the U.S. in 2022, with an estimated population of over 72 million, they make up a big part of our world. No matter the age, some people are only focused on themselves, or their own tribes, and it seems as if society in general seems to lack empathy. Just scroll through some Facebook comments, and you’ll see what I mean!
Gifts of Empathy in the Workplace
There are ways to bring more empathy into our lives, and it’s so important for leaders to lead by example.
Here are some reasons why empathy belongs in today’s workplace:
- You will build trust with others. When you are empathetic, you can have deeper relationships with your colleagues and employees. You will start to embody a deeper need to understand another person’s perspective. When you see someone get upset or triggered, you switch your own lens from yourself, perhaps proving why you are right or making your point, to what you are not currently understanding. Ask yourself why they are triggered and what you are missing. You bring in curiosity, which is a powerful leadership move.
2. You will be easier to work with. When you are flexible rather than rigid with your perspective, people will look forward to collaborating with you, to building something together. Multiple viewpoints are far more powerful than just constant alignment and agreement.
3. Your employees will feel as if they are heard. If you authentically care about them (and hopefully you do), you will want to help them succeed. When you champion others, they feel as if you have their back.
4. You will automatically assume positive intent. I love Brené Brown’s definition of this in her book Dare to Lead: “Assume positive intent as extending the most generous interpretation possible to the intentions, words, and actions of others.” When you believe in the best of people, you can work together to find a solution rather than jumping to conclusions about someone’s intentions or abilities.
5. Your relationship with your employees will transform from transactional to relational. You will be in a real relationship with your employees since you are not solely transactional in your engagement with them. That feels very different… and good.
How Can you Cultivate Empathy?
While my kitten experience was shameful, it provided me with a powerful experience, and it built the foundation for a positive adult attribute that I embodied from that day forward. Empathy was a new word in my vocabulary, and I worked to grow it without even realizing it in some ways. I continued to develop it throughout my life and continue to do so to this day.
Here are some ways you can practice empathy:
- Read autobiographies and memoirs. This is my favorite genre of books to read because I can read outside of my ethnicity, my cultural identity, and my socio economic background. As women, we always want men to read implicit bias books and be more thoughtful in understanding the ways they are impacting us in the workplace. But women must not forget to also read about what challenges men; it can be a blind spot for many women. We can be so focused and hyper-vigilant of the moments that impact us, we aren’t often empathetic to the challenges that men face today. Reading memoirs can give you all of those different perspectives.
- Adopt a pet. I’ve had pets throughout my life since that kitten, from other cats, dogs, even koi fish. Pets give you tremendous opportunity to learn to understand and communicate with them. I read a lot of books on how to understand dogs, but there’s rarely a day that goes by that I do not see a dog owner walking their dog, talking on the phone and being completely oblivious and not participating in the moment with their pet. The dog is trying to “read the newspaper” by sniffing, but the owner isn’t paying attention and literally drags them along down the street.
- Buy a plant. Alcoholics Anonymous asks their members to buy a plant and work to keep the plant alive for a year before they invest in a serious intimate relationship. The goal is to build empathy and thoughtfulness, and the level of responsibility is less than that required for a pet. Caring for plants offers certain benefits as well: research shows that plants have a calming effect and can help improve concentration.
- Read The Hidden Life of Trees and The Secret Life of Plants to broaden your empathy toward nature. These classic books affirm the depth of humanity’s relationship with nature. I have never looked at a tree or plant the same since I read these books!
Empathy is a component of emotional intelligence because you can understand and share the feelings of another person. Those who have emotional intelligence also typically have a high level of mental fitness. In my book, Leading Lightly, I teach you about the five muscles of mental fitness and how to bulk up these muscles for peak production in both your professional and personal lives.