Updated: May 4
I first posted this piece on Medium.
How do we increase our capacity for empathy in our daily lives?
At work, I am reminded about empathy every day because the concept is engrained in our company culture: nothing else here is someone else’s problem. In other words — I don’t get to ignore an issue that arises at the company simply because my job title doesn’t include a word synonymous with that issue. Likewise, I know that I am not alone in this sense of responsibility. I expect my colleagues to find common cause in the challenges I address every day. In theory, this concept of shared responsibility not only increases our efficiency, but increases our capacity for empathy.
However, in practice, empathy is not always easy. Especially when a situation that requires empathy isn’t dependent on a task, project, or deliverable. How do we practice empathy in these moments? Not just for our coworkers, but for other people we encounter every day who need an ally to empathize and care about their unique challenges or experiences?
On Monday, July 7th, 2016, I experienced a challenge that sparked my reflections on the importance of empathy and the power of allyship as well as my interest in answering these questions. From this moment, I experienced the support and validation I needed, and also an example of what a daily act of empathy looks like in practice.
Over that weekend, on July 5th and 6th, the world witnessed the deaths of two black men — Philando Castile and Alton Sterling — by police officers. News of these deaths filled me with deep sadness. I saw myself in these men, and their untimely deaths shook me. Particularly with Castile, I thought about his girlfriend and her daughter watching a man they loved shot in front of them over a misunderstanding and being unable to reach out to him in his final moments.
I thought about my own experiences over the years interacting with police officers, recognizing how my mannerisms and body language changed immediately to diminish myself in these moments in order to put the officer at ease. How I suddenly became conscious of everything about myself and my surroundings — my clothes, my car, my words — wondering if anything about me could trigger the wrong impression. How I felt like being too much of myself in those moments could be the difference between a warning and a death sentence. And, how simply being myself was sometimes enough to garner attention from an officer or security guard.
I mustered the energy to head to work. I tried to conduct myself with a “business as usual” attitude, leaving that part of myself to be sorted out off the clock. I thought this approach was necessary to cope with the day.
However, when I saw my manager later that day, I realized that what I needed most was for someone to care.
She asked me, “how are you doing?” And after I gave an auto-response — you know, the kind where you assume the question is a formality so the answer should be as well — she did the most amazing thing.
She made space for me.
She followed up and asked again, this time acknowledging the news about Castile and Sterling. And not only did she take the moment to ask, she made time to hear and process the answer.
In that very moment, she created an opportunity for processing, reflecting, and empathizing. Together. That mattered to me. I walked into that day feeling the burden of the news and the emotions and experiences it triggered for me. Our conversation made me feel like it wasn’t only my burden to bear and that this was not just my problem to understand. Her act also made me rethink the idea that only parts of myself were welcome in the workplace. All of me — my skills and expertise, my life experiences, as well as my personal and professional challenges — could and should find a place in this space I occupy almost every day. We spent the rest of our conversation sharing, learning, and helping each other, and a year and a half later that simple gesture still means so much to me.
Because nothing is simply someone’s else’s problem.
When I think of empathy, I find myself reflecting on the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Letter from a Birmingham Jail. In his letter, he encouraged fellow clergyman to see the common humanity in all people and to recognize the interconnectedness between communities and the mutuality of our circumstances. What affects one person directly, affects us all in some way.
This is empathy. It is the conscious effort to create a space for others. It is the recognition that our experiences, our choices, and our perceptions of the spaces around us are all interconnected. It is a fundamental belief that the well-being of each individual we encounter is inextricably linked to our own.
When we offer empathy to others, it can be a powerful catalyst for healing or change.
My manager reminded me of the power of empathy — something as simple as a question helped me validate my emotional state and move into a space where I could productively channel my energy into problem solving.
Since that conversation, I have prioritized making empathy a daily habit. The idea is straightforward — every day commit to one action that helps you understand someone better. For me, I have focused on three areas for building this muscle.
Find something to read or watch every day that exposes you to something new about a community or group of people and the unique challenges affecting them. I began subscribing to Fortune Magazine’s Race Ahead series for daily emails and TEDx and SoulPancake videos — check them out!
Reserve time each day to listen to someone.
“Sometimes the greatest way to say something is to say nothing at all.”
I love Justin Timberlake’s and Chris Stapleton’s new song “Say Something”, particularly for this refrain above that the two repeat throughout the song. Building empathy isn’t about talking; it’s about listening. We make a powerful statement when we do. Make space for someone to share with you about their lives — to talk about their weekend, to share about their likes and dislikes — and to learn who they are. Set aside an intentional 5 minutes each day, grab a coffee, or grab lunch with someone.
Make space for difficult conversations.
This daily practice moves us from empathy being a feeling to being an action. It requires both availability and vulnerability. Difficult conversations are…well…difficult. I have no advice for how to not make them difficult — after all, most things worth doing and most problems worth solving are by their very nature difficult. Whether the conversation is about opposing political views, exploring racial, gender, or socioeconomic differences, or defining systems of morality, I believe stepping into difficult conversations is actually about getting comfortable with discomfort in these moments.
Here are five points that I remind myself of before I step into difficult conversations:
We don’t have to know everything and we shouldn’t expect the other person to either.
Assume good intention from the other person — lack of awareness or exposure is not always a sign of malice or ill-will.
Enter the conversation with questions rather than answers. Take time to think about what you can learn from the conversation even if you disagree.
Share your story. I have seen value in sharing my personal experiences in difficult conversations. Not only can it humanize the conversation, but it can also it gives us a place to start difficult conversation — with what we know best, our experiences and our feelings.
Set one goal and stick to it. The idea of a difficult conversation can be daunting. Making a choice to accomplish one personal goal through the conversation has helped me focus less on the conversation itself and more on why I want to have it.
My charge to us all is to practice building empathy a little more each day — in our workplaces, in our homes, in our relationships.
One simple act of empathy can have an outsized impact.