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What a health scare can teach about EQ and social awareness

Empathy is especially important because, as our author learned after a health scare, people are quick to make negative assumptions or judgments of others.

8 min read


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This past year, I have had two skin cancers surgically removed from my forehead — too much Grand Canyon sun in the summer. As a follow-up treatment, my dermatologist prescribed a chemotherapy cream to eradicate any precancerous cancer cells on my face.

The first week of my twice-daily treatment, my skin turned red. During the second week of treatment, my face had increased redness, swelling, crusting, itching and intense burning. In addition to looking bad, it’s painful and uncomfortable.

What has been interesting has been the way people have reacted when I have been out in public. Some people will take a quick look and then glance away. Others will look at me and their eyes will get big and their mouths will gape. Others will openly stare.

What is worse is that I can almost hear their thoughts: “Wow! What happened to you?” “Yikes, that looks like it hurts!” “What is wrong with you?” Why would you go out in public looking that way?”

Because I’m a little self-conscious about my current appearance, I may be reading more into their nonverbal cues, but it has been an interesting and sobering experience. It has reinforced the idea that people’s unspoken thoughts manifest themselves through their demeanor, expressions and behavior, and can easily be perceived by others. Because we are so quick to make negative assumptions or judgments of others, this whole experience has reminded me how important it is to be kind and empathetic to others.

Everyone we encounter is likely facing some difficult challenge, although we may not know what it is. We need to improve our compassion and kindness toward others.

In an effort to increase our empathy, we must first recognize what is going on with others and then respond in an appropriate way to increase our understanding of their situation.

Seek understanding

It is not easy to put ourselves in another’s shoes, but here are some questions you might ask yourself to help you do just that. You might ask:

“What would I be thinking and feeling in order to say or do that?”

Sometimes I have found it helpful to ask:

  • “What is behind what they are feeling?”
  • “What is behind what they are saying?”
  • “What is behind what they are doing?”

The point of these questions is to help you get out of your experience and into theirs. For example, let’s say that a team member gets heated after a meeting about an assignment they were just given and says, “I can’t believe I got another assignment to do on top of everything else on my plate!”

What might this team member be thinking? They might be feeling overwhelmed with the number of tasks they have to do already, and the new assignment adds even more stress to an already difficult situation. Or they might be thinking that they have so much to do that the quality of their work will have to suffer. They might be facing a personal challenge with a family member which is now compounded by increased pressure at work.

Based on their response to the additional assignment, it is obvious that they are experiencing some negative feelings.

Not all people overtly display their feelings, but they may say or do something that gives us clues as to what is going on in their head. A change in demeanor or typical behavior can be an indicator that something else is going on.

Identify what to say

Once you have identified the other person’s possible feelings as evidenced by their behavior, you are ready craft an empathetic statement and follow-up questions that will allow you to explore the meaning behind their words and actions.

If we return to the previous example, you may want to begin your empathetic statement with a reflection of their emotion: “You seem to be frustrated with the new assignment you were given in the meeting. Is it because you already have a pretty heavy load of work to do?”

Notice that I am acknowledging their feelings, and then I am seeking understanding with a follow-up question.

You could also choose to reflect their words by saying, “I just heard you say, ‘I can’t believe I just got one more thing to do on top of everything else on my plate!’ And I’m wondering if you are overwhelmed with everything you must do.”

Or you could focus on their behavior by stating, “I noticed when that additional assignment was given to you in the meeting that you didn’t say anything. Then afterward you shared your true feelings about the assignment. Did you feel like you couldn’t push back in the meeting?”

Because not everyone openly displays their feelings, you might choose to reflect what they say or do instead. That is up to you. What is important is that you share your observation of what you are seeing and then seek understanding by following up with a question.

Don’t worry if your initial assessment of the meaning is incorrect. They will correct you and then likely offer additional explanation.

For example, they might say, “I have been asking for more resources for several months to meet current demands and they keep giving me more tasks without any additional resources to get the projects completed on time. I’m frustrated that they want me to continue to do more and more without giving me a way to meet the increased demand. I’m upset they don’t listen or seem to care.”

Make attentive time

Empathy takes time. Expressing empathy requires that you take the time to give your full attention to the individual. This is not about making a statement and then walking away. It takes time to observe the unspoken messages and follow up with an empathetic statement that demonstrates your interest and desire for further understanding.

Taking this time shows the individual that you are interested in them, that you are hearing them, and that you are supporting them. Expressing empathy is the consummate expression of understanding that reinforces thevalue of the individual and strengthens your connection with others.

Listen from the heart

Once you have made an empathetic statement and followed up with a question, listen with the goal to understand. You shouldn’t care how long it takes. People might take a moment to gather themselves as they assess whether you really want to know what’s going on with them. Be patient and bide your time until they decide to speak.

They may say something like “It’s nothing” or “It’s no big deal.” Respond with, “I think it is important or I wouldn’t have asked.” Then wait and listen again. It is up to you how long or how many times you decide to try again, but in the end, you will communicate that they are important and what they are thinking is also important.

While waiting for a response, you might ask yourself, “What would it be like to experience what they are going through?” While recently listening to a friend who is going through a terrible situation, answering this question for myself led me to realize that I had no idea of what he was thinking or feeling. It made me more attentive and increased my empathy, compassion and patience with him.

Offer support

It requires a level of vulnerability for someone to share their feelings with you. When the person finishes their explanation, thank them for sharing that information with you and ask them whether there’s anything you can do to help support them. Often they will indicate how appreciative they are that you would take the time to listen.

If they respond “Nothing,” you might end by saying, “If you can think of anything, please don’t hesitate to let me know.” If you don’t want to provide additional support, don’t extend an insincere offer.

Be sincere

Any time I have listened and asked genuine questions, I have been reminded that sincerity always carries the day. Even when trying to work through a conflict with a lot of emotion, be sincere.

This might mean saying something like, “This obviously isn’t working for either of us. I think it is important to figure out. Can we start over?” This acknowledgement of the situation coupled with sincerity will allow you to reset rationality and work toward a solution.

Becoming more empathetic is a critical skill for any leader or manager. Empathy is also the hallmark of a master communicator, someone who is emotionally intelligent. If you want to learn how to connect with people and establish rapport as well as increase engagement and understanding, then empathy is the key.


John R. Stoker is the author of “Overcoming Fake Talk” and the president of DialogueWORKS, Inc. His organization helps clients and their teams improve leadership engagement in order to achieve superior results. He is an expert in the fields of leadership, change, dialogue, critical thinking, conflict resolution, and emotional intelligence, and has worked and spoken to such companies as Cox Communications, Lockheed Martin, Honeywell and AbbVie. Connect with him on FacebookLinkedIn, or Twitter.

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