“Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?” — Henry David Thoreau
In my previous essay, I decided to focus on one keystone habit that I felt defined who we are as people: empathy.
As the first months of 2021 passed, trying to create a habit of practicing empathy in my daily life was a challenge. Keeping this concept as my guiding principle over the past six months has brought a new dimension to my work and personal life. Situations that were once confusing now make sense. Relationships that were dramatic and tense were now easier to navigate. The more I noticed this habit improving my days, the more I sought to practice it and further cement its place in my life.
To practice empathy, I had to practice paying attention and connect with people differently. When I started paying better attention to how factors like time and location can impact an interaction, I was better able to understand and notice other people’s actions and emotional states. From these observations, I’ve developed three practices for exercising the habit of empathy in your new year:
Cultivate genuine curiosity about people and their perspectives.
Challenge prejudices and discover commonalities.
Listen actively, be present, and open up.
What does it look like to practice these habits in our regular lives? Here are a few examples from my daily study, along with some tactics for making empathetic habits a part of your new year.
Practice #1: Cultivate genuine curiosity about people and their perspectives.
The Situation: When I’m feeling tired (emotional state) after six meetings in a row, and someone (person) expresses their “pretty different perspective” on an important deliverable (action).
The Challenge: When I’m explaining something, and I’m pretty sure that my vision of the concept it’s correct, and I have a strong opinion of it, it’s hard sometimes to stop and be curious about someone else’s perspective.
When I’m feeling misunderstood or doubted,
- Becoming defensive and shutting down
- Focusing only on my opinions or perspective
- Assuming my ideas are inherently correct
- Not take differing opinions as personal attacks
- Try to find common ground between my perspective and the viewpoints of others
- Assume that others have a lot they can teach me and listen to them with curiosity
Practice #2: Challenge prejudices and discover commonalities.
The Situation: When I’m feeling frustrated (emotional state) in our weekly morning meeting (time) with Bob (person) because it’s the third time he has said, “I didn’t really think about it” (action). This is after a coworker warning me that he never contributes to the team.
The Challenge: When somebody tells me something bad about someone, and I have a meeting with that person, I can’t change my preconception because of the other opinion I was exposed to.
When I’m feeling frustrated by a coworker,
- Getting mad at Bob because he didn’t do what I wanted
- Feeling frustrated because I don’t know how else to ask him to help
- Starting to formulate prejudices about Bob and his performance
- Do my best to put myself in his place to understand the situation from their perspective
- Ask reflective questions, listen actively, and understand the underlying emotions and drivers
- Lead by example by giving the other person tools to succeed and helping them to refine their thought process and workflows to better deal with similar situations
Practice #3: Listen actively, be present, and open up.
The Situation: When I’m feeling impatient (emotional state) at a client meeting (location) because I want to describe my perfect solution for the problem that she was illustrating, so I stop listening to the client (action).
The Challenge: Whenever anyone tells me about a problem they are having, I want to jump in and offer my advice.
When I’m feeling impatient during a client meeting,
- Not listening to the client because I think that I have the perfect solution
- Interrupting before the other person finishes their train of thought
- Feeling overly eager to share my knowledge on a particular topic
- Actively listen to the client without interrupting
- Form a hypothesis and then ask relevant questions to prove or disregard it
- Be genuinely curious about the client’s challenges
- Try to put myself in that person’s place and understand the situation from their perspective
Just because we are halfway through 2021 doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty of time to practice and refine your new attitudes and practices. Throughout each day, there are countless opportunities to develop the habits that will lead us to kinder, richer, and more connected lives.