Empathy is hard — Here's our "hack" to practicing it
It can be difficult to empathize with someone who just feels so completely different from you. But when we take a moment to consider their hopes, dreams and emotions, we'll realize there is a whole 'world' inside of them we have yet to explore... and maybe, just maybe, we have more in common than we think.
Wong Gwen Yi
Sep 27, 2021
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I'll come out and say it first — I'm an extremely judgmental person.
I can't help it; it was indoctrinated into me ever since I was a little girl. Whenever we passed a homeless person on the street, my father would turn to me and say, "Study hard, or else you'll end up like that." When we stepped into the elevator with our darker-skinned neighbors, my mother would pull me to the furthest corner away from them, as though their color was contagious.
As I grew older, I started making judgments of my own. That classmate who always showed up late was lazy, a bad student, and to be avoided for group projects at all costs. The colleague who dressed prettily and stopped by the boss's office a lot was a suck-up, a boot-licker... maybe even someone who was willing to sleep her way to the top.
If you're reading this and squirming in your seat, I get it. It might feel uncomfortable to speak so openly about the terrible thoughts we harbor in secret; the judgments — or labels — we assign to the people around us. These labels influence our thoughts; guide our decisions. We are driven by them, yet for the most part, they are unconscious. A shadow force underpinning our every move.
What are labels?
One of the first things we learn as a child is how to label. "This is a circle. This is a triangle. This is a square." Our parents brought us on walks, pointing things out and waiting for us to repeat it back to them: "That is a tree. That is the sky. This is a leaf. L-E-A-F."
It's only natural that the labels would continue to evolve with us as we grew up — "In every movie, there are 'good guys' and 'bad guys'" — and we'd learn to transfer them to our every day lives — "In every class, there are 'good kids' and 'bad kids'".
Labels help us make sense of the world around us. They help us navigate, think, make decisions, and survive. But there comes a time where labels stop protecting us, and instead, start holding us back. From connection, from listening, from expanding our worldview. From other people.
How can we break free of labels?
To judge is to be human. It is an instinctive, evolutionary act that is ingrained into our very DNA — so don't judge yourself (!) for judging others. What matters more, is what you do after you make that first snap judgment. Do you continue with that train of thought, or do you consciously create a new one?
Our tagline at Tribeless is #SeeTheHumanFirst, and it is by far my favorite 'hack' for breaking free of those pesky snap judgments and labels we assign to others.
See, at Tribeless, we believe that deep down inside — no matter how obscenely different we are on the surface — we are more similar than we are different as human beings. And the fastest, simplest, most effective way to practice Empathy (and achieve World Peace) is to literallysee the Human first.
What is #SeeTheHumanFirst?
It first came about when we realized the key to practicing empathy is being able to see parts of ourselves in other people. How can we approach every interaction with the acknowledgment of the humanity we share?
Seeing the human first is knowing and acknowledging that we are more than just our labels. Every person that we meet has different roles they play in their life — as a parent, sibling, mentor, coach, child, partner, or friend. They have dreams. They have hopes. They have fears, and pain, and struggles, and emotions — just like you. We share in this unique condition called life and go through the full spectrum of the human experience.
These other roles and internal experiences may not be obvious during initial interactions with someone. But with the willingness to be curious and to listen, we are able to discover all these other aspects to them — and see the human first.
How does #SeeTheHumanFirst work?
Seeing the Human first works in two ways:
Seeing yourself as human... So that you can be gentler to yourself. Lower those expectations. Change that tone. It's okay to make mistakes, it's okay to take things slower. One step at a time.
Seeing each other as human... Acknowledging the humanity we share. The emotions, the challenges, the life experiences. Even if we live with someone, even if we are the closest to them... We'll never see their full picture. Pull up a chair. Look them in the eye. Ask... and really, truly listen.
Both are equally as important, because we cannot see in others what we don't see in ourselves.
Reminding ourselves to See The Human First is the first step to deconstructing the one-dimensional labels in our head. When we take a moment to recognize that the person we are interacting with is a whole, complex, living, breathing human, with their own hopes, fears, dreams and struggles, we realize they are MORE than just the labels we've assigned to them. We can expand our initial impressions of them, and start getting to know them as a person.
How to put #STHF into action: Pause, Notice, Respond
Putting #SeeTheHumanFirst into practice means turning your focus INTERNALLY before jumping to any actions or conclusions. Think of it like a firebreak — containing and extinguishing the fire that is fueled by labels and judgments by intentionally creating a space for breathing and understanding.
When you have created this space within, you can then consciously invite the other person into the space with you — hence, kickstarting the cycle of empathy.
Let's put #SeeTheHumanFirst into action with a scenario. Let's say you're the leader of a company, and Alex is a recently-promoted direct report. One day, Alex forgets to relay an important piece of information to you before a big meeting with the company's stakeholders.
You were put on the spot and questioned, but did not have an answer to give them because Alex failed to inform you of the relevant data. You were embarrassed and frustrated... What would you say to Alex after the meeting?
If we were still operating from a Label-first perspective, our minds would be in overdrive right now:
Incompetent: "My direct reports don't make silly mistakes like this!"
Suspicious: "Did he deliberately withhold information so I would look bad?"
Doubt: "Did I make a mistake by giving him a promotion? Is he right for this job?"
With thoughts like this swirling in your head, it wouldn't be surprising if you called Alex up to give him a stern talking-to for the way he'd disappointed and embarrassed you.
Here are the three actions you can practice internally to See The Human First:
"What am I feeling or thinking right now?"
Instead of placing the focus externally (on Alex, the stakeholders, etc), we can first turn our focus inward — to ourselves:
What am I feeling right now? "I am feeling disappointed, embarrassed and frustrated."
Why? "Because I felt like I messed up in front of the stakeholders, and I'm afraid that my reputation is at risk. I'm the one that fought for Alex to get promoted. I'm worried that he isn't up to the job I gave him. I'm wondering if I made a mistake."
Pausing creates safety for ourselves and others, allowing us to take a breather and calm our minds. With clarity on our emotions and underlying thoughts, we can distinguish between our personal feelings and the situation at hand.
Here, you realize that you're not actually angry at Alex... you are more worried about the impact of that incident on your work and reputation.
"What am I seeing? What am I missing?"
Only when we pause and have the space for clarity that we are able to NOTICE what labels and judgments we have assigned to the other person... and to check if they are true, or if there is a bigger piece of the puzzle we're missing.
What am I seeing? "I am seeing the mistake Alex made. I am seeing him only in his role as my direct report."
What am I missing? "I am missing Alex's side of the story. I don't know why he did not tell me that important piece of information. I don't know what else is going on in his life."
All of a sudden, you remember that Alex vaguely mentioned a few days ago that he was taking an emergency leave to take care of "family business". Oh dear... did something happen? Is someone ill, or worse, dead?
All of your anger and suspicion melts away. Suddenly, you are concerned. It isn't like Alex to drop the ball like this, especially before a big stakeholder meeting. You know how detail-oriented he is... That's why you gave him the promotion in the first place. Something must have happened.
Pay extra attention to labels that we have picked up from our environment like 'Leader = Someone who shouldn't make mistakes', or 'Mother = Someone who should always be taking care of my needs'. These labels can prevent us from seeing the human first and empathizing with the other person!
"What are they carrying that I cannot see? How can I support them?"
You pick up the phone, and give Alex a call. He immediately starts apologizing the moment he picks up.
Hey Alex—Alex! It's alright. I'm not angry. In fact, if I can be honest with you, I'm worried. It's not like you to forget something so important. Is everything okay at home?
Silence on the other end. Alex had been expecting rage, tears, shouts, maybe even a demotion. He wasn't expecting empathy and compassion.
I—I— Yes, ahem. My wife, she contracted COVID. I've been sending her to the quarantine center, taking care of the household, and minding the children. Oh, and uh, taking daily COVID tests. Don't worry, I'm not positive, I'm fine... I promise I'll do a better job...
You say gently...
Alex, please don't apologize. I had no idea this was happening. It sounds like a horrible time. I'm giving you a week of paid leave, okay? Don't worry about the workload — we'll manage it together when you come back. If you need more time off, or an advancement of your salary to help with the bills, let me know. I'm here to support you.
Alex is speechless. He merely nods mutely, then — realizing he's on a phone call — murmurs
Yes. Wow. Thank you.
Thank you! I'm not saying I approve of you over-working yourself... but your resilience and commitment to your work speaks volumes of your character. I'm so glad I promoted you.
You can't see it, but tears are running down Alex's cheeks. This is one of the most unexpected gifts of kindness he has received in a while.
Oh, and Alex? You don't have to keep everything to yourself. You can always tell me if you have something like this going on. The whole team has your back. We'll get through it — together.
When we notice what we didn't see before... When we choose to give the benefit of a doubt... When we see the human first, we increase our capacity to be connected, to be kind, to extend empathy and compassion. Because we know how it feels like to be in their shoes. And we know how healing it feels to know that we're not alone.
By practicing PAUSE - NOTICE - RESPOND, we open up possibilities and perspectives that we had never seen before, bringing more closeness, connection and mutual understanding to our everyday interactions.
That, is how we can create a more empathetic world — one conversation at a time.🌼
We're more similar than we are different as human beings — and the fastest, simplest, most effective way to practice Empathy is to #SeeTheHumanFirst.
When we remind ourselves to See The Human First, we are able to see beyond the labels we have assigned to people — and notice the full spectrum of emotions, experiences and humanity that lie underneath.
"PAUSE — NOTICE — RESPOND" creates the opportunity for us to acknowledge the HUMAN we are interacting with, so that we can let down our judgments, and treat each other with kindness and respect.
If you enjoyed this article, please consider sharing it with a friend who might resonate! At Tribeless, we design fun, practical learning experiences for organizations and leaders to hone their empathy skills and #SeeTheHumanFirst.
If you’re interested to learn more about our approach, watch this video or get in touch with us here 💛