Are You Fighting to Build Your Empathy Skills?

I was writing the geographically distributed agile teams book this morning with Mark Kilby. I said, “I have to fight for all my empathy skills. They might come naturally to you, but they don’t for me.” He laughed.

Empathy and sympathy are quite different. To me, it’s about the context. Here’s the difference:

  • Empathy is when you can put yourself in someone’s situation. I often ask, “What would have to be true for this person to think/believe/act in this way?”
  • Sympathy is when you feel pity. When I offer condolences on a death, I feel sympathy.

Mark and I were discussing how people who start at different places might come to the same actions, based on empathy for the people or the situation.

I start from empathizing with the situation. (See How Can You Understand Someone’s Context?)

Mark often starts from empathizing with how people feel. I honor how people feel. I feel as if I have to practice to elicit the information they have in their feelings. That’s why I start with qualitative questions in assessments. The qualitative information helps me build empathy.

Make no mistake—I love looking at quantitative data to understand the other person’s context. And, quantitative data is only a partial explanation for their context. The other part—sometimes the most valuable part—is the qualitative data.

When I spoke with Mark, I used a Star Trek analogy: I start from a place that’s Spock-like. Mark starts off more like Uhura or Scotty—connecting with people regardless of their background or state.

I work hard to build my empathy. I have fought for every piece of empathy I have. That’s because I start with the context, the effect on the context on the people. I then go to the people. Mark might start with himself or the other, and then go to the context. We have different preferences, and we end up in the same place.

When we are congruent, we do this quickly, not with delays between these thoughts.

Neither of us is wrong. Neither is right. It’s where we start. Not where we end. (That’s one of the reasons our preferences are not our destiny. Our preferences help us know where we start, not all that we can accomplish.)

Our preferences make certain things easier than others. I have a bias to starting and a preference for action. I use agile approaches to make sure I finish and to re-assess. Your biases—your preferences—might differ from mine. You have probably discovered ways to help you start and finish that work for you. That’s your context—which fits your situation and your preferences.

When we realize where our preferences don’t help us, we fight for the “other.” In my case, it’s the fight for empathy.

I’ve found that fight for empathy to be worth it. I can avoid sympathy for their situation, and move to empathy. I can then help them see their environment and offer tools to see their relationships. For me, creating empathy is worth the trouble.

That’s the question this week: Are you fighting to build your empathy skills?

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