Empathy is tricky business; it’s also natural and part of being social creatures. Sometimes it’s hard to believe that someone has empathy because what they see happening is very different from what you see. Empathy, however, is part of us all even though we feel it, have it, and express it (differently).
Recently a senior manager expressed the following. Here’s the gist:
I just had a realization. When I’m talking with someone who is energetically positive about something, I easily go along with them. If they are negatively energized, I also easily go along with them. That makes me feel like a chameleon, as if I don’t know my own mind.
His observation isn’t unusual and has a great deal to do with empathy. The dictionary defines empathy as “the capacity to understand or feel what another being (a human or non-human animal) is experiencing from within the other being’s frame of reference, i.e., the capacity to place oneself in another’s position.” The words within the other being’s frame of reference are the key to understanding what the manager is experiencing.
Putting ourselves in the other person’s shoes is something we all do, but some do it more fully than others. How they do that remains a mystery. To more fully do that usually just happens, but the Communication Styles Framework can give us some insight to better understand the phenomenon.
We all process information kinesthetically in the direct experience within our body. It’s visceral. Some of us have a strong experience in the kinesthetic realm. These folks often feel concern for how strongly they feel other’s feelings (pain, joy, etc.). When it’s something that feels good, like joy, the shared experience is exhilarating. But when it is pain, it can often feel overwhelming; the experience is extremely heavy.
I think of it as absorbing the other’s energy. Some people do this to such a degree that they feel saturated with emotion. Think of a sponge that has soaked up all the liquid to capacity and is starting to drip. That’s what it can feel like and be for those so strongly kinesthetically attuned.
The manager realized that he was too often going along with the ideas of others because he was having such strong feelings in his connection to the other person’s experience. What he needed to understand was that these strong feelings were part of his personal empathy for the other but not necessarily for the idea. This differentiation helped him develop a strategy: to put up a firewall between the empathy and discussion of the merit of an idea. This would not deny the part of him that is so strongly empathetic but to always have a follow-up discussion after he decompressed (squeezed the sponge!) and had time to analyze the situation with other parts of his mental/emotional self.
He also developed a way of acknowledging the importance of the idea, so the other person would know that he truly understands. And he made it clear that he needed time to fully process the information so they could have a more comprehensive discussion. This strategy worked because the manager respected his emotional engagement (his natural self), but balanced that with time for reflection, analysis, and a more thorough response.