September feels like a blank slate, a wide-open canvas for us to splatter something new – see if it’s pretty, see if it sticks. Here’s one I’m trying on for size: empathy. This month I am going to seek first to understand before being understood. Because if I had to choose one skill I could keep if I had to give up all the rest, it would be empathy. If I could have one hope for the world, I would wish that we would all get remarkably well-practiced at that skill.
Truly being able to suspend judgment and imagine what another person takes a ton of practice and repetition. In a recent meta-analysis of 146 different definitions of empathy, researchers suggested it’s best defined as “the ability to experience affective and cognitive states of another person, while maintaining a distinct self, in order to understand the other.” And maybe the most powerful string of words that helped me truly understand this emotion is Toby Sinclair’s definition: “Empathy is a tool of compassion. We can respond empathically only if we’re willing to be present to someone’s pain. If we’re not willing to do that, it’s not real empathy.” One of the further caveats is the necessity to temporarily put aside how we experience a situation to allow ourselves to feel another person’s truth.
In any skill-building game, there are often strategies and suggestions to be able to play the game better—and empathy is no exception. So what are some tried-and-true ways to get better at it? Although not an exhaustive list, these are my go-to’s when talking to leaders, coaches, parents, and partners, and I hope you can use them, too.
The Light Up: The light up is one of the most important (and straightforward) strategies for fostering connection and cultivating relationships, especially with kids. Moms are (usually) especially great at this. Simply put, it’s when you see someone at the end of the day, or at the airport, or coming off the ice…and your whole entire face lights up like it’s going to explode with joy. The light up is a key piece in an empathic experience. We never grow out of wanting the people we love to lose their minds or to light up when they see us.
Face to Face: The second empathy drill I think is helpful to practice is simply eye contact. The whole concept of not just looking but seeing what others experience and how we, as a human race, are far more alike than we are different often starts with slowing down and looking. This specific strategy—face-to-face—is meant to remind us that the physical act of meeting the eyes of another, assuming they’re physically and culturally able to do so, is powerful and so often left unused.
Get Down: The third little drill to add to your practice repertoire is a simple but highly effective add-on to the whole face-to-face thing: get on the same level. There’s a big difference when we look at each other and one is towering above versus sitting side by side.
Feed Them and They Will Come (Around): One of the most powerful strategies, and my personal favorite, comes down to snacks. Breaking out some sort of food as a regulating strategy is often a segue to an empathic conversation. You can’t flip your lid when you’re chewing. Full stop. The best acknowledgments of our shared commitment and love for each other often happen around a table full of food.