I have been thinking about empathy and responsibility a lot in the last couple of days. It was prompted by an experience I had on a recent call, observing the impact of empathy or lack of it, and how that can disintegrate a community of people or workplace... and it has left me curious and wondering about the repercussions when, as a collective, there is a true lack of empathy. Sadly, I am seeing this more and more in many communities post-Covid, post-Trump, post-war, etc.
On this call, I heard a lot of sentences (and explanations of behavior) that started and ended with "SHOULD HAVE", but that got me thinking, what about self-responsibility and self-accountability and leading by example? There seemed to be a double standard at play, in which participants were demanding "empathy" while at the same time not applying it.
If the participants or the guest speaker on the call had applied more empathy, where it was lacking, replacing the words "she should have" with "I could have"...
I could have ... asked a different question to get the answer I seek. I could have ... been more understanding. I could have ... approached the conversation differently. I could have ... been more empathetic I could have ... sought first to understand, in order to be understood.
I could have ... listened more.
I could have ...
...perhaps there would have been a different outcome to the meeting (but then I may not have been motivated to question my own levels of empathy and write this post.)
Empathy is a broad concept that refers to the cognitive and emotional reactions of an individual to the observed experiences of another.
I have empathy for people who are feeling desperate in their search for solutions and safety.
I have empathy for the leadership that is doing the best they can with the limitations and rules they are bound by.
But not all leaders lead or communicate well. This can be frustrating and tiring, especially when we need something from them and do not get it. So the question then becomes, how do I get what I need, if it's not from the person I want or expect to get it from? This can be a challenging situation to be in because beliefs and personalities can often dictate how a person leads and communicates. My approach to challenging leadership is to ask more questions, apply more curiosity, make myself more approachable, softer, kinder and always approach the relationship with openness, while at the same time, being proactive and seeking other solutions. Are there other people in the organization that may be able to help me? Are there other avenues I can take to that will lead me to the destination I seek? Are there things I can do, to help the leader, get me what I need?
Anger limits your access to empathy.
Do I agree with everything that everyone does or says? Absolutely not, but what I choose or how I choose to be in the situation is the better question for me to ask myself. Who am I in this?
You can be upset, sure, and you can have needs that you would hope others would acknowledge, address, or even fix. We can want others to behave how we would expect, but we do not have agency over others. No matter how hard we try, we can't guilt, shame or control others into doing what we want them to do, or behave how we want them to behave, or say what we want them to say. We do however have the ability to make choices from each situation we are given.
I am upset because...
Your upset is not the responsibility of someone else. Your upset is yours. Own it. It's ok. Other people don't have to fix your upset or meet your needs and sometimes, they will not behave how you would expect or want them to, but does that mean they are not worthy of your empathy or compassion? How you relate to the issue, is the issue. Does that mean that you no longer have access to your empathy and compassion if you are upset? Does your upset limit you and put you further from the things you want or need? This eye-for-an-eye behavior in our society is truly a cancer. The remedy? More applied empathy which leads you to understand and ultimately connect and love, yourself and others. When we recognize that the upset we have lives inside of us and really accept that it is our responsibility to heal our upset, only then can we approach such difficult people and situations with clarity and diplomacy.
The angry or scared person who feels entitled and justified to email or call or harass another person over their misjudgments, actions, or words... is that justified? Does that mean that if someone hurts you, you get to hurt them back? I hope not. And what are we teaching our children if that is the underlying subconscious of a community?
If we each held ourselves as accountable as we hold others responsible, then maybe we would have better communication, fewer arguments, and overall happier communities and people.
Poor behavior exists in all areas of life, not just in our schools or workplaces. The lack of empathy shows up in many areas of our communities (in the form of gossip, duplicity, censorship, hate speech, againstness, bullying, alienation, etc.) and therefore it is our responsibility to notice (the lack of empathy) and apply it when and where we can if we are truly seekers of peace and unity. It's not easy work to be a champion of empathy, but it's a useful and productive way to move forward.
The key here is to be reminded that, "I am NOT responsible for your interpretations of my words or actions. I am responsible for me. You are responsible for yourself"... make choices for your life so that YOU can find peace, wellness, joy, and safety. You are in charge and have agency over your words, and actions. You do not have agency or control over someone else. So, if someone does not meet your needs, do you make them the enemy? Or do you take action toward meeting your own needs?
It just is what it is.
We can disagree or dislike how people handle situations, but that doesn't make us right and them wrong. It just is what it is. This is an especially challenging concept for me, as sometimes I just want to be right and have "them" be wrong. But that only creates more separation, more misunderstanding, and ultimately more conflict. This gets even harder for me when it comes to my beliefs and my personal views. But I am reminded that having empathy increases the likelihood of helping others and showing compassion. And I do trust the golden rule. So, just because it is perceived that someone LACKS empathy in a given situation, does that give others the right to not apply empathy? I would say, absolutely not! In fact, what greater opportunity than to apply empathy where it is perceived to be lacking?
NOTE: This is also true for applying patience, kindness, compassion, friendship, love, and understanding when and where it is perceived to be lacking... If YOU apply these things then you can be the agent of change. If you are the first one to say sorry, if you are the first one to address the emotions of the other, if you go high when others go low, well then, you have truly mastered empathy and have earned your path straight to enlightenment.
In conclusion, I would recommend, ALWAYS apply empathy, for all persons, even in the most challenging situations, especially when you are hurt, mad, upset, and angry. It is the application of empathy and having compassion for yourself and others that will guide you towards a better, more sustainable solution and my best guess is that you will have a stronger community and a better working environment.
“Empathy is a building block of morality—for people to follow the Golden Rule, it helps if they can put themselves in someone else’s shoes. It is a key ingredient of successful relationships because it helps us understand the perspectives, needs, and intentions of others.”
The application of empathy is the cornerstone of love and life.
Thank you for reading.