Twice in the past week I have spoken to groups about EQ or Emotional Intelligence. We discussed the aspects of EQ, what they mean and how we can become stronger in each of these areas. One of the components we discussed is empathy:
Empathy – The empathetic individual is able to understand the emotions of others and also learns to treat them as they wish to be treated.
I realized the concept of empathy ties to another concept I have discussed – ‘Going Beyond the Golden Rule.’ The golden rule is often expressed as ‘Do unto others as you would wish them to do unto you.’ The golden rule is recognized across many religions and cultures, and is also referred to as ‘The Ethics of Reciprocity’. It is an understatement to note that the golden rule is a terrific model for how to treat others.
But to be empathetic you need to move beyond what you would want and move toward what someone else wants. To be empathetic is not about you it is about the other person.
Consider this story:
Sally planned a big surprise party for Jim. It was his tenth anniversary as a senior developer at Acme Software Company. Sally saw this as the perfect opportunity to recognize Jim. Jim was never in the spotlight and yet he was consistently a strong project team member. Sally was one year away from her fifth anniversary as a project manager with the company and she could not wait for her celebration!
Stop right here. You can see Sally’s frame of reference can’t you? She is looking forward to a big celebration for her anniversary. We don’t know what Jim wants.
The day of the party things did not go well. Jim was completely unsuspecting as he walked into a room full of people yelling ‘Surprise’ and ‘Congratulations Jim’. There were several people in the room. Jim could not wait to make his exit. He was horribly embarrassed and left the room as soon as possible.
Sally was crushed by Jim’s reaction and a bit angry. She could not believe that Jim did not appreciate her efforts. After all, she would have loved it if the team had thrown her a surprise party.
What went wrong?
Again, Sally was thinking about what she wanted NOT about Jim. Her intentions were good, but her actions did not demonstrate empathy. Sally needs to get to know Jim and understand his motivators. If Sally had gotten to know Jim she would have recognized that he is quiet and shuns the spotlight. He hates to be the center of attention.
Empathy is not throwing a big loud surprise party for Jim. A card or an e-mail or low-key private verbal recognition would have been perfect for Jim.