I used to think I was naturally empathetic, then a family member’s crisis showed otherwise.
I have always been curious about other people, what makes them tick, and what they need. I listen actively, recap often, and make sure everyone is included in the conversation.
This other-oriented conversation style is a natural skill, and for years, I have been teaching others to use it in their buyer and customer conversations.
I have also been involved in “service to others” since the age of 10 when my brothers and I joined my mother’s work writing Urgent Action letters for Amnesty International.
Being involved in volunteer work as an act of service and empathy has always been a priority, initially for me, now for family, and especially my children.
So, I am naturally empathetic, right?
That’s what I thought, until a family member’s challenging divorce suggested I had a lot more room for growth.
This family member sought me out to talk about his divorce precisely because he knew from our past relationship that I was good at listening.
We had a few calls. I listened and absorbed as he described his plans for a divorce settlement and “moving beyond this nightmare” in his life.
After the first couple of calls, I decided the approach he picked was actually counterproductive and I felt the need to suggest a different approach.
He listened and asked a bunch of questions. He agreed “my approach” was better and he committed to moving in this new direction.
I was thrilled. More validation for the power of empathy, questioning, and active listening.
And, then in a next call, I learned he didn’t move in this new direction. I got annoyed and angry with him for not following through on my advice.
That call did not end well. After realizing I was in the wrong, I called back and apologized for assuming I understood the situation well or knew what was best for him.
It turned out the earlier call was not a victory for empathy, but for my ego. I got sucked into the glow of him acknowledging that “I was right.”
The experience was a great reminder that our brains are not naturally wired for empathy.
Our brains are wired to think about ourselves first. We go into most situations thinking we already know what’s best without needing to collect new information.
So, now I don’t say I am naturally empathetic. I say empathy is a habit of mind that I am trying to constantly cultivate and deepen.
It’s not just about listening and recapping or focusing on service and inclusion. It also means letting empathy rather than ego win out when the outcome does not go my way.