Talking with people in organisations, beneath the surface of the everyday activities that go on, I frequently hear how tough today’s work environment is for them. In the public sector it is the cutbacks and the consequences for people’s jobs, in the private sector it is the consumer slow-down in spending and the faltering world economy. Personally people are feeling financially very under pressure and squeezed. Optimism is less common. One businessman said to me on Friday that he felt people have become very self-centred and survival-oriented, a kind of emphasised “me-first” attitude.
In this environment, it is tempting to discount others and to treat others with less than they deserve. Yet it is those others who are maybe struggling a bit and need help. If we’re closed off to others, help is less likely to occur.
This is where being emotionally available and empathic is so important, although lacking in very many at work, often dismissed as being “touchy-feely”. Daniel Goleman speaks of “social radar”, that crucial aspect of emotional intelligence where we are attuned to others, can sense the undercurrents, can pick up on what might be going on, and can thus respond appropriately and potentially more aligned to another’s perspective.
The ability to get what might be going on for somebody
To have empathy is to be able to metaphorically sit alongside someone and see as much as we can what it is like from another person’s perspective. We can’t “know how they feel”, as we aren’t them, although people often mistakenly think they can, but we can attempt as far as humanly possible to find out their perspective. It involves listening non-judgementally, pure listening, and not going through the motions but really hearing another. It involves being observant and noticing what’s going on. Also we need to notice the subtleties, like changes in the atmosphere, in facial expression, body language, skin colour and so on. It also involves noticing how we ourselves are feeling, and our ability to be sensitive to ourselves. How we are feeling can be clues to another’s, as people often resonate with one another.
This skill, if that is the right word, can be developed if one chooses to develop it. For many of us though, we’re closed off to others through our life experience, the codes of work behaviour, our own social fears and discomforts, and in other ways. We become desensitised and disconnected, both from our own life force and being attuned to others. This is where developing self awareness can be so useful. When we’re more self aware we are more able to pick up on the clues inside us to what might be going on for others. When we’re better attuned to ourselves, we are more likely to know what’s really going on for us and what therefore might be going on for others. We can then be more attuned to others and get what it might be like for them, to be more empathetic.
Arguably, this skill or attribute of empathy is now sorely needed, where people are self-focused, narcissistic, suspicious if not hostile to others, especially those different from themslves, separate and divided. “A house divided against itself cannot stand”, Lincoln said. We need to reach out and empathise with others’ pain.