You’ve Heard The Phrase ‘Be Kind To Yourself’ — But What About Empathizing With Yourself?
Being unable to connect with your coworkers through anything other than a screen can start to put a dampener on your ability to be empathetic. But what you may not know about empathy is that in order to have empathy for others, you need to start having empathy for yourself.
Empathy in the world of business
While empathy does exist in the business world, it’s often both misunderstood and executed without authenticity. Kristoffer Carter, executive coach and founder of This Epic Life, describes empathy as the “attempt to understand someone else’s lived experience,” and that most of the time, it’s something we all need to work on consistently. This works parallel to sympathy – while sympathy is about what you feel regarding someone else’s circumstances, empathy is asking how the other person feels.
“It’s not enough to say that we understand and empathize,” Carter says. “It takes digging a couple of layers deeper to demonstrate that we’re making an effort to understand. Our many privileges and biases don’t allow us to truly know what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes. However, we can demonstrate we’re making the attempt to understand, which helps people feel seen and heard.”
That being said, often, this attempt can be muddled by the many professional exchanges of the workplace, and it can be hard to juggle surface-level conversation with colleagues and deeper emotional conversations at the same time. A boss says they want to be empathetic, and to help others through trying times, especially if it’s impacting their work. But you know for a fact that they also feel the need to keep those professional boundaries tight and limit the potential for uncomfortable oversharing. Carter notes that this product, though well-intended, creates a “watered down” version of empathy that isn’t anything worth bragging about.
“It’s also being over-used… empathy is a “show me don’t tell me” piece of conscious leadership,” Carter begins. “Calling yourself empathetic can be a red flag. It’s like calling yourself an “influencer.” If you act influential, you won’t need that label.”
Additionally, this kind of “diet empathy” isn’t the perfect way to become the perfect modern boss, which is a common misconception. Especially in a time where leadership is attempting to re-humanize the hybrid workplace, just asking an employee how they’re feeling in the beginning of a one-on-one isn’t going to cut it.
“The common assumptions are that empathy may be some sort of cure-all or quick-fix. It’s not. It’s one more layer on the bridge of understanding one another,” Carter says. “True empathetic leaders have a gift (or a deeply practiced skill) of making whoever is in front of them feel like the only person who matters in that moment. They aren’t disregarding the opportunity to connect, or to help someone feel seen.”
Teaching empathy for others, and for yourself
The good news is that if you don’t have that special kind of high-quality empathy printed on your DNA, you’re not alone – in truth, while some people are more attuned to others, empathy takes work throughout one’s whole life. Again, you’re not just signing up for a seminar on empathy in the workplace and calling it a day. Empathy is a skill you can cultivate and alter to fit your circumstances, so it never needs to be watered down, just tapered. And it’s not just a skill you use on others – empathy is of the utmost importance when you’re trying to help yourself.
In order to truly be empathetic to another person, one must cultivate the ability to be empathetic by starting with themselves. If you’re resistant to believing that you deserve to be understood, even if you imagine that your feelings are unwieldy, unreasonable, and unpredictable, you’ll never be able to understand why someone else has felt as strong as yours. Start learning empathy in the classroom of your own psyche, and once you’re able to identify how your experiences impact your own feelings, you can start doing it for others as well.
Let’s say you need to start from scratch, and you don’t have the faintest idea of how to empathize with yourself. One skill Carter recommends when teaching empathy from the bottom up is to start with some basic reflective listening, which takes what someone says and allows them to elaborate on the emotional content of their statements. A few reflective listening phrases are…
“What I’m hearing is…”
This allows you to parrot back to the other party what you garnered from their part of the conversation, and wrap your brain around what they might be experiencing. Be careful not to be reactive in this step, as there’s a big difference between how you feel about the situation they’re in and how they feel about it. If you assume what they’re feeling, and you aren’t accurate, you could come off as condescending.
While this step is difficult to do with yourself, you can still at times parrot back your own thoughts, and see if you can describe why something bothers you in a way you can understand. If you think, “I hate him!”, perhaps you can step back and say, “What I’m hearing is that I’m angry.” Then, rather than becoming fixated on the object of your hatred, you can begin to work through the emotional process of what it means to be angry, what might trigger your anger, and how you can work through it.
“I’m not sure if this is what you intended, but do you mean….?”
A phrase like this is a great step to use with a coworker or boss whose reactivity seems to be getting in the way of their true feelings. Perhaps they’re hurt that they didn’t get picked for a project, but that hurt comes out in frustration. This question cuts through the frustration, and straight into the core emotions.
It’s also a useful tool to use with yourself, especially if you feel yourself having a strong, intense emotion about something and you don’t necessarily know why. Maybe you begin to panic during a virtual meeting, and you cut out of the meeting by making up a lie. Rather than berating yourself for lying, you can look back on what you said, and say, “I didn’t intend to lie, but I felt I needed to in that moment of panic – what I really meant was that I was scared, and needed a reason to leave.”
“It sounds like you learned to value…”
While this phrase is very deep and meaningful, it’s actually a more advanced maneuver – so don’t try this on your very first empathetic exchange. You’ll need to know how to hear what someone says and pick out the most important parts of their statements, then put them together like puzzle pieces that inform you of the other party’s beliefs. Furthermore, in order for this phrase to land, you’ll need to be talking to someone who’s able to identify their own values systems, as if they’re still discovering what they value and what they don’t, your point could plant thoughts in their head.
With yourself, however, this question is a constant necessity – you should always be exploring what you value, why you value it, and why certain things that could be against your values system will make you uncomfortable. Without knowing your own values, it’s almost impossible to help someone else discover theirs, as you’ll hardly know how to ask someone else what “trust” or “family” are if you haven’t crafted your own definitions.
Reflective listening, and reflective talking
Lastly, it’s pretty obvious that empathy is about listening, whether it’s “active listening,” “reflective listening,” or anything of the like. But learning to talk about your feelings is just as important as listening to others talk about theirs.
You’ll find that the more you ask about people’s experiences, the less they know how to express what they’re going through, especially if they’ve never been in therapy, and don’t know how to put their feelings into words. This is why exploring yourself is so important – the more knowledge you have on how to speak to yourself kindly, gently, and without judgment, the more you’ll know how to implement that nonjudgmental tone with a peer who needs a shoulder to lean on.