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How to Cultivate Empathy

Empathy is sometimes denigrated as a quality that makes people “soft” or “weak.” and forgiving of everything. But the skill of empathetic listening is the essential basis for effective communication. In this step, actor and author Alan Alda discusses the importance of cultivating the skill of empathy.

Let’s begin with the idea of empathy, a means for connecting with colleagues and building meaningful relationships.

Empathy is sometimes denigrated as a quality that makes people “soft” or “weak.” and forgiving of everything. But the skill of empathetic listening is the essential basis for effective communication. In this step, actor and author Alan Alda discusses the importance of cultivating the skill of empathy.

What is Empathy?

In competitive, driven American professional culture (for one), the word might not inspire the same level of respect as, say, ambition, or success. But the skill of empathetic listening, closely related to the concept of emotional intelligence, is the essential basis for all effective communication. If you can’t sense what another person is feeling or thinking, how can you connect with them? If you can’t connect, why should they care about what you have to say?

Dark Empathy

A Dark Empath understands and even feels emotions like an Empath, but they use those emotions for their own benefit. Dark empathy can be used to destabilise other people, as in the case of interrogators and bullies.

An Actor’s Take on Cultivating Empathy

  • Relating is about connection. Your message will resonate when delivered through an open, easy, two-way conversation.
  • Empathy is the basis of communication. Ask: What is the other person feeling and thinking?
  • Your goal is to meet your audience where they are. Do people care about what I have to say? How can I match what I have to say with what they care about so that they’ll understand it and remember it?

Empathy is Listening. Hearing and Caring

In his long career on stage and screen, Alan Alda learned one essential lesson; it’s about listening. You say your next line not because it’s in the script but because another character makes you say it. Because you’re listening, the response is a little different every time, but for the audience, it always feels true.

Whatever (and with whomever) you’re communicating, says Alda, the key is hearing what matters to the other person and making the connections between what matters to you and what matters to them. This is how you get your message across and how you establish the lasting, positive relationships that are the foundation of a successful business and career.

Over To You

After you watch the video practice demonstrating empathy:

  • Sometime today – right now, if possible – ask someone at work with whom you’re friendly (but not necessarily friends) how their weekend was, or whether they have upcoming vacation plans. Nothing too intrusive—just a casual, friendly inquiry. Really try to listen to their answer. What are they feeling about the things they’re telling you? What non-verbal information are you getting from their tone of voice or body language?
  • Now imagine you were suggesting a possible vacation or weekend plan to the colleague you just spoke with. How would this listening exercise inform your approach or your specific suggestions?

Reflect: Read Your Empathy Thermometer

Alan Alda regards empathy as a tool for communication, one that allows you to meet others where they are.

  • In your own words, why does Alda consider empathy a morally neutral tool? What risks (to career and business) might be involved in the use of what Alda calls “dark empathy”? What are the potential benefits of its opposite?
  • How would you like to use this module to improve your abilities in the social awareness domain of EQ? What do you already know? What do you want to learn?
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Emotional Intelligence in Practice

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