I am often reminded that the same ideas we work with in organizational settings apply to family and friends—and often have more impact at home because, while work is important, it’s always family and friends first.
Empathy is a key topic in the business world these days. “The evidence is clear that the most effective groups are those whose members most strongly possess the most essentially, deeply human abilities—empathy above all, social sensitivity, storytelling, collaborating, solving problems together, building relationships,” Geoff Colvin wrote in Fortune magazine.
Oracle group vice president Meg Bear says, “Empathy is the critical 21st-century skill.” A recent post by Entrepreneur contributor Joey Pomerenke concluded, “The successful entrepreneurs will be those who practice empathy.” Colvin put it another way: “Being a great performer is becoming less about what you know and more about what you’re like.”
But what is empathy? It’s the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. Empathy can be learned, and like other learned skills, it takes awareness and deliberate practice.
Think about teaching your 5-year-old how to ride a bicycle. Talking about it will not produce the balance needed to stay upright on a bike. Certainly there are some things to tell your child before she sets off on her own: Keep your hands on the handle bars. Keep pedaling. I’ll have my hand on the seat so you won’t fall over. All of those are useful. But they don’t give your child balance. Balance comes with the experience of balancing and then losing it. Getting it and losing it, until bam!—you have it.
Empathy is another skill that can be learned through observation, correction, and repetition. And because we often raise boys, in particular, to compete, they can get less feedback from us on the social skills.
When raising your children to be socially aware and skilled, these are some observations you might make to help them see how their actions affect others:
“That was gracious. That was not.”
“That was kind. That was not.”
“That was thoughtful.”
“I like it when you share.”
“Let’s make room for everyone.”
“Who else might we invite to go with us?”
Asking questions will help children learn to identify their own feelings and begin to recognize the feelings of others:
“What does it feel like when someone is kind to you?”
“How do you feel when Ruby is crying?”
“How do you think Max feels?”
What if you missed this training when you were five?
It’s not too late to learn, and the first step is to train yourself to notice situations in which your words or actions can make a positive difference. These are my favorite things to be aware of and to practice, not only at work but in all my interactions
Notice who is not participating and invite them to join the conversation or game.
Notice when someone is interrupted and double back to see if they had finished what they were saying.
Verbally or nonverbally acknowledge people’s presence when entering a room.
Check in with someone who seems upset or sad to see if they’re OK or if I can help.
Rather than saying “I told you so,” figure out how to disagree or respond without making someone else wrong.
If I disagree with someone, think about whether I need to voice my view. If so, acknowledge the value in their idea or concern first, let them know I see it differently, and ask if I can share my thoughts.
Restrict teasing to arenas where it is clearly part of the setting, as with my golfing buddies—but even there I’m careful, because teasing often hurts.
Remember that your children are always watching you, so your interactions with others can provide a powerful model for their learning.