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The 5 Habits of an Empathetic Communicator

June 7, 2012

How we respond to others is largely a function of habit.

Many small, repetitive, automatic responses that grow over a long period of time form habits. Mostly, these reactions are outside of our conscious awareness. They’re built on foundations formed by our beliefs, and in most cases, they stayed fixed, usually reinforcing old beliefs and naturally – old habits.

Charles Duhigg, author of the fascinating book, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, writes, “Most of the choices we make each day may feel like the product of well-considered decision-making, but they’re not. They’re habits. And though each habit means relatively little on its own, over time, the meals we order, what we say to our kids each night, whether we save or spend, how often we exercise, and the way we organize our thoughts and work routines have enormous impacts on our health, productivity, financial security and happiness.”

Habits, it seems, govern our relationships as well.

In his work, Duhigg describes the nature of habits as the “cue, routine and reward cycle,” and he believes that all habit clusters have at their core a “keystone” habit. These keystones, Duhigg, reports, are the habits that matter more than others.

The keystone habit starts a process, that over time, the basal ganglia – a small region of the brain situated at the base of the forebrain, then turns over to a more automated, habitual process. This brilliant process of habituation allows the brain to become more efficient (needing fewer resources) by becoming automatic.

So you can see the paradox around habits, right?

If habits govern our moment to moment behaviors, we want those to mirror the best of our intentions, don’t we?

Yet, if the motivation for most of our habits is outside of our conscious awareness, we’re functioning mostly on auto-pilot – not such a desirable thing – most would agree.

So how do we begin to design, install and implement the habits that reflect who we really are – and what we really want?

Given the power and importance of relationships in every sphere of our lives, let’s start there.

The great news is that habits can be changed. Research shows that rather than ridding ourselves of old habits, the brain makes room for new habits that eventually overtake the old, unwanted ones.

Given the primacy of empathy as the basis for understanding and achieving effective, successful, balanced communication, let’s consider building our natural, empathetic impulses as a “keystone” habit.

The 5 Habits

Habit # 1 – Beliefs

Beliefs are powerful filters on our experience that can be resistant to change, even in the face of compelling facts and experience.

It’s not uncommon for me to hear people I work with say, “I don’t believe that every person is capable of empathy.” Usually when you dig into the weeds of this belief you discover that this response is more anecdotal rather than an opinion based on the latest science.

It’s rare, however, for people to admit that they don’t believe that they are not appropriately empathetic. Often people, who believe in “selective” empathy, are concerned and even cautious that those who are “too” empathic can be taken advantage of, especially in business situations. In other words, many in the work world still see empathy as being “too soft.” Low-trust environments and relationships which are common in today’s workplace, trigger feelings of vulnerability that result in people feeling the need to be “on guard.”

Although researchers  continue to look at the biological and social factors that may impede the  human natural tendency towards cooperation with others, it is generally agreed that all of us are hard-wired for empathic responses.

There is no question, that certain social experiences can and do bring out (especially when formed in early years)  empathic tendencies that can form long-lasting neural pathways that build empathy as a habit.

Habit #1 forms the foundation for developing our capacity for feeling and expressing empathy. Unless we excavate the many roots of our beliefs about empathy, compassion, communication, trust and relationships, we’ll limit our ability to form natural empathic responses.

Habit # 2 – Listen and Trust Your Body

According to Marie Miyashiro, author of the The Empathy Factor, “True empathy is not a mental construct; it’s an emotional and whole body experience that can be learned.”

It’s not uncommon for some of us to fight our natural empathetic responses. Empathy is a feeling. Depending on how rigidly we’ve constructed the walls around our emotions by thought forms, like rationalization, we can block empathy and deny the truth of our bodily experience.

Judgment, another thought form, is another potent barrier against allowing our natural inclinations towards empathy. If we judge a context for empathy as inappropriate, i.e. the workplace, we’ll tend to curb our impulses towards caring and kindness in those settings. If we judge another person as unworthy in some way, we’ll likely shut down those feelings towards them – and people like them. Scratch the surface and you’ll find that many people have an elaborate architecture for who they trust and when they allow themselves to demonstrate empathy and concern.

But the body doesn’t deny. We have to do a great deal of heavy lifting mentally to shut ourselves off. I’ve often seen stressed, mentally armored professionals break down when given the slightest opportunity to share what they work hard to keep pushed down emotionally.

Habit # 3 – Focus and Attention

In the new digital world of constant distractions and divided attentions, it’s easy to overlook empathy. There is a kind of frantic pace to life these days – most evident in the workplace. This sometimes boils down to actually not seeing others in need. The needs of others don’t have to be dire and life threatening (though we’ve even adopted the awful term “compassion fatigue” in dealing with exposure to often overwhelming societal needs on a global scale) for us to shut down. It can be as simple as overlooking the stress and worry obvious in the speech tone or facial expression of a co-worker. We’ve tuned out what appears to us as distress signals, usually based on being out of touch with our own emotional needs.

In the well-known, “Good Samaritan Experiment” conducted at Princeton Theological Seminary, students were studied after hearing the biblical parable of the Good Samaritan.  Only 40% stopped to offer a staged victim any form of assistance, regardless of their self-identification with their religious values.  Even those purposefully tasked with lecturing on the legendary tale of kindness would walk straight past (if not over) someone in need. Analyzing the disconcerting outcome of this study, researchers have pointed to the focus on tasks that the students were asked to completeand the stress experienced by the eager, driven seminary students as the main reasons why, despite their avowed philosophies, participants could so easily overlook a person in distress.

While it’s likely that future studies will hone in more on the actual changes in the brain that shift our focus in different circumstances, the existing data makes it abundantly clear that unless we intentionally shift our focus towards what is happening with others, we’re likely to overlook their needs, which cue our empathic responses.

Habit # 4 – Boundaries

Often, we don’t allow ourselves to dwell in our natural empathic responses because we feel we’ll lose our perspective and get “sucked” into other’s people’s “dramas” (a new term we use to marginalize and devalue other people’s emotional lives).

Although, there are some people who are so sensitive, that they can get overwhelmed by other’s needs and forget their own, most people’s boundaries are not that porous.

One excuse I hear for not feeling or acting empathically in the workplace is “I can’t really help that person with their problems,” or “The workplace isn’t the place to have those kinds of discussions.” or the classic, “I don’t have time.”

Yes, it is true that there are (surprise, surprise) some people in the workplace that are emotionally fragile and who carry so much unresolved emotional baggage, that even a simple show of concern or conversation can unleash the feeling floodgates.  But most of the time, these reasons function more as an excuse or distraction from showing some empathic understanding to others.

In my experience, I find that a little empathy goes a long way. Often, that small kindness, those few minutes when we authentically attempt to connect with others, can have a big impact on how others feel – and view us.

Habit # 5 – Practicing Self-Empathy

You’ve all heard the emergency flight instructions, “Put your oxygen mask on first before you help others. This is also true with empathy.

There is a strong correlation between the amount of empathy you extend to yourself – and what you feel and express towards others.

I’ve noticed a trend; because the concept of self-empathy is so rare in this culture, many people react with criticism to hearing the term. People often erroneously interpret self-empathy as a form of narcissism. Typically, the word used to describe it is – self-indulgence.

But if we can’t listen to our own inner needs, wants and feelings with loving acceptance – our ability to be tolerant and patient with others is limited.

While it is true that many of our institutional systems are set up to ignore the human dimension in favor of a focus on performance and profits – each of us has the ultimate power to choose how we want to respond to other people. That is our choice. These choices should reflect what we really believe – and value.

No matter what technology brings or how much life will change in the future, human needs will endure.  We humans will still need trust, respect, autonomy, understanding, meaning – and love.

Empathy can often be an elixir for the heavy load, however temporary, that many people are carrying.

It’s a habit we all need to cultivate.

As always, I appreciate your comments, subscriptions, shares, likes and tweets. 

Louise Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication

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