SAN DIEGO–If credit union execs are honest with themselves, they will admit they have said at least once “I hate that guy,” when referring to a co-worker or a member or even a member of the board.
The best way to resolve that kind of stress is through empathy, according to one person. And empathy doesn’t just apply to stress in the workplace, said Whitney Hess, a certified coach and author. It’s also a powerful means of “genuinely connecting” with other people, including members who may be experiencing difficult times.
“It’s important to remember empathy is a choice,” Hess told CO-OP’s THINK 16 Conference. “You can ‘choose’ every day. I want to tell you the how of empathy, and I want to get practical. I define empathy as the capacity to feel another person’s feelings. I know the conference is called THINK, but we’re going to talk about doing things a little bit differently than thinking; we’re going to be talking about feeling.”
Empathy is more than a quality, according to Hess. It begins with self-awareness, she said, without which one cannot be aware of what others are feeling. “Self-awareness also leads to self-management, which means we choose to behave in a certain way. We don’t react, we respond,” Hess said.
Hess suggested that when it’s said of someone that they lack empathy what is likely at work is a person who simply has a hard time “reading people.” Other reasons someone can seem to lack empathy include “waiting for our time to talk and planning our response rather than waiting for the other person to respond,” and making assumptions others feel and think the same way we do.
“When we possess empathy we have an easier time effectively understanding others’ perspectives,” said Hess. “We more accurately read physical moves and non-verbal cues; we better predict others’ reactions; we relate to people of diverse backgrounds and more effectively serve other people’s needs.”
Empathy Can Be Learned
So, can empathy be learned, or are people just born empathetic?
According to Hess, empathy can be learned and is a competency and a skill that can be acquired over time. How does someone build that skill? According to Hess:
- Assess your listening. “Steven Covey calls the highest level of listening, ‘Empathetic listening.’ This is listening with the ‘intent to agree.’”
- Watch for cues. “What is their physical body telling us about what is really going on for them?”
- Read more literary fiction. "That is a way to develop our empathy. Why? Because literary fiction asks us to use our imagination.”
“Something else I have found incredibly useful with my clients, and that is practicing compassionate communication, sometimes called non-violent communication,” said Hess. “This is necessary to resolve conflicts and connect people more peacefully.”
To practice empathy, Hess said there are some key assumptions:
- All actions are attempts to meet needs.
- All needs are universal.
- All feelings are signs of needs met or unmet
- All conflicts are about strategies, not needs.
“Here is a big one,” she said. “Money is not a universal need. It is a strategy to meet a need. That need might be security, it might be stability, it might be freedom. But it is always a strategy. So to assume that everyone needs money and that is the reason they are in conflict is a faulty assumption.”