Empathy comes up as a topic of conversation weekly, perhaps more in my household. And this morning on my run I started to wonder about it and why it comes up so regularly in my brain and conversations. So I looked up the definition in the Merriam-Webster dictionary and found this; empathy – the feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions: the ability and the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to someone else’s feelings.
Here is what I started to wonder – how our ability to empathize also affects our ability to be patient and tolerant and forgiving? For example; if you have never owned, loved and lost a pet you likely have trouble understanding the grief a pet owner feels when their beloved animal gets lost, gets sick or dies. But, if you have owned an animal and you have experienced their unconditional love and then the unwanted loss you would automatically draw on that experience to better understand and show ‘empathy’ for someone in a similar situation. It’s plausible to expect that you would be more patient, more tolerable and more forgiving of small errors or actions like weeping at their desk because you know how they feel.
I also think we can have empathy for people in situations we have dreaded or imagined for ourselves. For example, the loss of a child. If you have never lost your child, and I hope you have not, then you couldn’t really imagine the mind bending pain that it would bring, but as a parent or caregiver you could likely put yourself in the shoes of someone who has lost their child and show empathy.
These examples presume through experience or through perceived experience we can expand our empathy tank. And having an expansive empathy tank gives us what as a leader? I think it gives you the ability to relate and connect with a variety of people in a variety of situations. I think it gives you a softness and a calmness that people experiencing pain or discontent can feel. I think it makes us better.
Does empathy affect our tolerance, patience and forgiveness? My short answer is yes. I don’t believe it is the sole contributing factor to our capacity for tolerance, patience and forgiveness but I do think it affects it. For myself, I know that if I can relate to someone’s situation I am far more patient with them and equally more tolerant of their perhaps, uncharacteristic or even crazy behaviour.
I don’t think we have to have experienced all of life’s tragedies to be empathetic but I believe we need to become aware of our own empathy tank. My level of empathy for someone is affected by my knowledge of them. Particularly if I like them, or the opposite. The closer I am to someone the closer their pain is to my pain for them. The more I care for someone the more I feel their pain and the more tolerant, the more patient and the more forgiving I am because? Why? Because I know about their life, their struggles, their successes, their fears, because I know more about their heart.
There a very popular saying– walk a mile in their shoes. Which I think is about empathy because if we walked a mile in someone else’s shoes we would experience what they experienced and ergo have an understanding of and be sensitive to their emotions and feelings which are based on their experiences. Full circle?
As a leader your willingness to know the people you lead inclusive of their stories and your ability to either share experiences or put yourself in their shoes will inevitably result in a larger tank of empathy. This increased tank size will also positively correlate with your ability to be patient, be tolerant and be forgiving as you come to appreciate the diversity of the human journey. We are all in the throes of figuring it out, no matter our age or our intellect. We are all a work in progress.