Practice Empathy

Practice Empathy


I attended a lecture by Simon Sinek who was promoting his book Leaders Eat Last – Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Dont. The premise is that “leaders look after those around them.” Leaders are courageous people who charge into battle and work on behalf of the group to protect them and shield them from harm. By being courageous and fostering an atmosphere of trust and respect, the people they are leading feel safe to fully engage in the mission of the group and, as a result, are more effective as a team.

The phrase “Leaders Eat Last” comes from the Marine Corps practice of generals standing at the back of the cafeteria line and making sure that the enlisted corps men and women are fed first. Sometimes, this means that there may not be any food left for the generals by the time the get to the front of the line. But, it often means that those they are leading will actually give some of their food to the generals, because they feel safe and respected by them, and because they realize that the mission of the team relies on all members getting what they need.

Mr. Sinek says that the foundation of this form of leadership is empathy and he encourages us to “practice empathy.”

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “empathy” as the feeling that you understand and share another persons experiences and emotions: the ability to share someone elses feelings.

 Put another way, it means that, if your employee, or co-worker, or spouse, or child behaves in a way that is inconsistent with what you desire or expect, you should not react immediately to their action. Instead, you should pause, reflect, practice empathy, and try to determine why they are behaving that way, rather than focusing on the behavior itself. Are they afraid? Are the feeling insecure? Are they unsure of what you want or expect from them? Are they confused by your instructions? Do they feel they don’t know how to perform the task you assigned them? Or, are they having a bad day? Has something bad happened at home to make them behave this way?

Quite often, there is an understandable answer for their behavior, that is often different than what you expect. But, you will never know if you just automatically react. And the process will repeat itself and the mood around the office (or at home or in your relationship) will deteriorate if you don’t find out the root cause.

So, pause, reflect, take a deep breath, and try to find out what is really going on. Take the time to listen. Take the time to care. Take the time to try to solve the problem together.

Practicing empathy also applies to people we encounter in a more random manner in our daily lives from restaurant servers to retail clerks, other drivers, commuters, etc. Sometimes, they behave in an unexpected or undesired way. We immediately think they are reacting to us or that they “just weren’t trained well” or “don’t care about anyone but themselves.” This may not be true and there may be a perfectly understandable reason for their behavior. After all, we never truly know what others are dealing with. Obviously, in these random encounters, it is rarely appropriate to engage a stranger to find out the root cause of their behavior. In those circumstances, take a deep breath, and practice empathy. Understand that there may be a perfectly legitimate reason for their behavior, that it wasn’t necessarily directed at you, and that you may be able to change the course of the remainder of their day with a kind word, a warm smile, or just an extra bit of patience.

Yes, I know, this all sounds a bit idealistic. A Utopian ideal. I readily admit that there are many times when I’m in a rush, short on time, totally self-absorbed, and just can’t be bothered with other people, their needs, and their demands. But…it is at those times that I need some empathy. A kind word, a warm smile, or just a bit more patience. Something to bring me back down to reality and connect me with other people and remind me that we’re all truly in this together. That our actions affect each other, no matter how small or how large.

I strive to be a good leader – in the courtroom, at the office, in my life. I’m an extrovert and my relationships with others are hugely important to me. I became a lawyer because I wanted to make the world a better place and I wanted to help people. Doing that requires that I practice empathy – in all aspects of my life. After all, it is in giving that we receive.

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