Empathy in Action

walking-in-the-rain-w-a-dog-croppedI had an epiphany while walking the dog one dreary, wet West Coast morning not long ago. Actually, it was more of a sniff than a walk. Lily the Labrador needed to stop every 3 feet to bury her nose in the ground for a couple of minutes.

As my hands grew colder and my neck, wetter from the rain seeping through my collar, I got impatient, yanked on the leash, and started walking. [I know I know, dog-lovers, but that’s the ugly truth.]

A few minutes later, I remembered my positivity focus on empathy for this month, and the guilt came crashing in. Oy. Was there any hope for me?

But then came my Eureka moment: Impatience with others (human or otherwise) signals a lack of empathy! Who’da thunk?

When I started to notice a correlation between my empathy seemingly vaporizing and my feeling tired, hungry, hangry, stressed or anxious, I knew I was onto something. But scientists had beaten me to it.

They’d already discovered how stress reduces our empathy by activating our less social, more primitive survival instincts, which impedes our ability to empathize and be compassionate. Stress even makes it harder to absorb new information.

babies-showing-empathy-croppedI felt vindicated—my reaction was completely normal! It wasn’t an indication of innate badness after all!

But hang on. I didn’t want to pursue a life of self-centeredness either. Empathy is good for so many reasons; it deepens relationships, improves leadership, and inspires others. How could I keep my hold on it even when stressed?

Transforming stress into caring

Turns out, other research points to how stress can also actually increase caring, cooperation, and compassion while reducing fear, boosting hope, and making us social, brave and smart.

empathyfeatureI want some of that! So how can we re-purpose our stress?

I’ve been having good luck experimenting with a couple of tools.

  • First, when I feel my impatience with others (two- or four-footed) rising, I try taking a breath,  becoming aware of my irritation, and then asking a powerful question that awakens me from what some might call my moral slumber: “Why would a reasonable, rational, decent person act this way?

Holy cow! That gets me thinking. It even works when somebody cuts me off while I’m driving. And when Lily feels like sniffing instead of walking.

  • Second, I’m working on mustering more empathy for myself. Earlier this month, for instance, I was ruminating over a particular challenge, feeling judgmental of others involved, when I realized my empathy had gone AWOL. It occurred to me that I was feeling a little lonely and unloved.

When I mustered a bit of self-empathy through a Loving Kindness meditation, the emotional clouds began to clear. And no wonder! Those clever cognitive neuroscientists have found a strong correlation between mindfulness and our ability to empathize.

Ah, empathy! Such a powerful emotion—helping us adapt, make good decisions, collaborate effectively—and thrive. Empathy even makes us better pet parents. Ask Lily the Labrador.

In the meantime, continue to lead your life with a focus on G.R.A.C.E. [Grow Relationships & Choreograph Efforts]…enjoy yourself and the moment…and lead with confidence!

MEMay the (positivity) force be with you.

.. Mary Ellen (ME)

Mary Ellen Sanajko
Leadership Coach & Trainer