Sensitive people are often misunderstood and labeled as "too sensitive" or "too emotional". But sensitivity is a strength, not a weakness. It allows us to feel deeply, connect with others, and bring empathy and insight to the world. An individual should never let anyone else invalidate their sensitivity.
Nothing is more important than empathy for another human being's suffering. Nothing. Not career, not wealth, not intelligence, and certainly not status. We have to feel for one another if we're going to survive with dignity - Audrey Hepburn
There are many definitions of empathy, to simply put it to you empathy is listening, holding space, withholding judgment, emotionally connecting, and communicating that incredibly healing message of 'you're not alone'.
Let's talk about the science behind empathy
Empathy plays a crucial interpersonal and societal role by allowing people to share their experiences, needs, and desires with one another and acting as an emotional link that encourages pro-social behavior.
Our ability to distinguish between our own emotions and those of others depends on the exquisite interplay of neural networks that allows us to perceive others' emotions, resonate with them emotionally and cognitively, and take on their perspective. When there is a lack of emotional empathy due to racial, ethnic, religious, or physical differences, cognitive empathy must be used.
There is no place for discrimination or providing less care to individuals for example patients whose cultures differ from the majority culture or the majority culture of healthcare providers. Hence, healthcare settings are not exempt from conscious and unconscious biases. Empathy for oneself and others results in the replenishment and renewal of a crucial human capacity.
It is evident that making efforts to improve our innate capacities for empathy are essential to fostering stronger ties between people on an individual, communal, national, and international level if we are to move toward a more empathic society and a more compassionate world.
Affective empathy also referred to as emotional empathy, is the capacity we have to feel what another person is feeling. Cognitive empathy is the capacity to infer and comprehend another person's emotional experiences from their point of view while differentiating those emotions from our own.
Therefore, emotional empathy occurs when I recognise that you are anxious and it makes me anxious as well. Cognitive empathy is when I try to put myself in your shoes, and understand how that feels for you, why you might be feeling anxious, and how that might affect your behaviour. The inferior frontal gyrus and ventromedial prefrontal cortex, respectively, appear to be the key brain areas involved in both emotional and cognitive empathy.
Emotional empathy seems to be influenced by mirror neurons, which react in the same way when we watch someone else perform a behaviour as when we perform the behaviour ourselves. We might notice how others are expressing their emotions, and then feel the same way on the inside as if we were doing the same thing.
A short history behind empathy
In the middle of the 19th century, aestheticians first introduced the idea of empathy. They referred to this emotional "knowing" of an artwork from within by feeling an emotional resonance with it as "Einfühlung," which is a word from the German language. This idea was expanded by psychologist Theodore Lipps at the end of the 19th century to mean "feeling one's way into the experience of another" by postulating that inner imitation of other people's actions was a key factor in evoking empathy. Martin Buber, a philosopher, gave the idea of empathy more depth by referring to an empathic relationship as "I and Thou" as opposed to an unempathic disrespectful relationship as "I and It." The objectification and dehumanization of another person, which is all too common in modern societies, is contrasted with humane respect and concern for the other in this potent description.
Why was the human brain created for such a difficult, intricate task? If "survival of the fittest" were the only reason for human existence, we would only have the capacity to dominate others and not care about their suffering. We are able to feel and comprehend the pain of others because of our ability to perceive and resonate with their suffering. Often, the emotional pain we feel when witnessing another person's suffering inspires us to act compassionately. Mutual assistance is essential to our species' survival, and giving it also lessens our own suffering. Mutual assistance is mentioned in the earliest accounts of tribal behaviour and is still a powerful force in the modern world, where millions of people and thousands of organisations work to alleviate suffering on a global scale.
Empathetic leadership offers a model for how improved follower behaviours and affective states result from understanding and support from the leader. In every aspect of life, including the workplace, people require assistance and empathy. Family and friends offer support outside of the workplace. One can seek assistance from coworkers and colleagues while at work. However, leaders can also demonstrate empathy. By doing this, leaders forge a strong bond with their followers that motivates and sustains them in actions required to increase productivity at work. Better workplace outcomes result from leaders who display that they care about their followers' well-being at work by acting with consideration.
A leader must consider how dependent and vulnerable a follower is on them, as well as the fact that followers are more susceptible to being harmed by a leader's poor decisions. This point of view also raised the issue of how a leader should take into account a follower's contextual factors, such as their needs and emotional state. From an evolutionary point of view, empathy gives someone a competitive advantage because it enables them to anticipate who they can trust, how to interact with them, and whom they should avoid because they might pose a threat. Additionally, it gave people a way to connect with one another and build networks of partners they could rely on to work together for survival.
Such knowledge proved useful to our ancient ancestors as they built larger networks for food gathering and defence because it was possible for people to become isolated and vulnerable to the elements or support freeloaders who drained the group's resources without good relationships. Empathy, which is the expression of emotional support, also served as a warning sign for someone's reliability and ability to think about others' needs instead of just their own.
How to be an empathetic leader
1. Recognize Oneself
Excellent self-awareness is the first step in developing an empathic leadership style. To achieve this, you must work internally to comprehend your driving forces, temperament, and personality type. Knowing your communication style, how you respond to criticism, and how your values influence your behavior are all part of this.
Investing in your own growth is the first step in your journey. You can start to adapt your leadership style to the needs of your team once you become more self-aware.
2. Activate Empathetic Listening
Once you become more self-aware, you can engage in communication and activate a deeper level of listening. This happens as you intentionally acknowledge and understand both the team member's verbal and emotional responses and points of view.
The better you understand your people, the better you’ll be able to serve them in a meaningful way.
3. Show compassion
Leaders with empathy show grace and compassion to others. They are adept at moving a mile in another person's shoes. But keep in mind that organisations have objectives that must be met. Compassion and clear expectations that are understood by all team members must be balanced by leaders.
Empathetic leaders understand the value of fostering a climate where people can express their opinions, take calculated risks, and admit their errors without worrying about repercussions.
Empathy is not...
Empathy is not Sympathy
If you offer sympathy, without empathy, you are liable to misunderstand your
friend's true emotions or switch the focus on yourself.
Empathy is not Reassurance
Reassurance is trying to cheer someone up, get them to look on the bright side or
not to worry, but it invalidates people's emotions.
Empathy is not Pity
Often people who are pitied feel they're being looked down upon or judged.
We might think that empathy means using the right words to describe someone's feelings, but rather empathy is the earnest and persevering effort to understand how someone feels.
Exercise to build empathy
Think about the person for whom you would like to cultivate more empathy and remember how they have been in recent days.
Think of some reasons why they might have been the way they were.
Think about what your impact on their life might be.
How could you be more supportive?
Think about how the smallest support could change everything.
Resources: Empathy Workbook
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