Practicing Empathy in the Heat of the Moment

Mothers and daughters often don’t see eye to eye. Last week, I had one of those not so fun mother-daughter interactions with my nine year old. She was getting emotional and so was I. However, her emotions were falling out all over the place and mine were tightly held inside. 

I completely disregarded her emotions and the first words out of my mouth were to minimize the feelings and go right for the “how to”, clarifying what I expected from her and what I wanted her to do about it. How do you think that went?

Really it’s the same with all of our relationships, right? People don’t respond the same way to things, we don’t see things from the same angle, and often we want different things out of the conversation. Those differences can trigger some “heat” in the conversation. 

The key to avoid the heat is EMPATHY. If you want to find empathy for ourselves and for others in the midst of conversations, then it starts BEFORE you ever have the conversation. To become the leader (or parent) we want to be means giving attention to this internal work, especially if we want to show up as ourselves in those potentially heated conversations.

As the conversation with my daughter was unfolding, internally I was aware I wasn’t handling it well, but I couldn’t stop myself from being frustrated and upset. Which, of course, fueled her emotional reaction even more. Have you ever experienced that? Totally unproductive, right?

“The opposite of anger is not calmness, it’s empathy.” 

~Mehmet Oz

It took me a minute, but I was able to finally get a hold of myself and suggested we take a break. Her reaction was more of the same. She is nine after all. But, I knew we both needed a bit of a pause. While she went “kicking and screaming” to her spot in the house, I went to mine. Later, we were able to come back together and have a productive dialogue.

In the heat of the moment, I couldn’t find empathy for her. I was frustrated and just wanted the problem to go away. The pause helped me step back and do the internal work I needed to do. I found empathy for myself — it’s understandable that I reacted. Then, I found empathy for her — all she wanted from me was a little validation and understanding of her concerns. She actually wasn’t looking for me to fix her or tell her what to do.

Find your Empathy

Empathy is the ability to read and mirror what another person is feeling and also the ability to take on their perspective in that moment. We can detect it and then relate to it. How does empathy show up for us as leaders?

Reading emotions in others 

Tuning into emotions gives us greater understanding of others and also can give us awareness of our own emotions and how they impact us.

Slowing down the conversation

Imagining what others might be thinking and feeling engages the curiosity to ask more questions BEFORE driving to solutions.

Mirroring the feelings we perceive

Our posture and response lets others know they are being listened to and understood.

Putting the brakes on behaviors that hinder

By stepping in another’s shoes we notice behaviors that might be causing hurt and put a stop to them. 

Building meaningful connections

Empathy is an engine for closeness igniting the connections that improve the way we work together.

If we practice empathy in our everyday conversations, then when the heat rises up we are more likely to access our empathy — for ourselves and for the other person. 

When you can’t find it, take a break and come back to the conversation later. Use that break to reflect on the situation and look for clues that activate your empathy for yourself and for the other person! Empathy builds an emotional bridge that builds rapport and cultivates healthy leadership influence.   

What’s Next

  1. Reflect on the empathy statements above. Where do you see empathy serving you well as a leader?
  2. Identify one action step you could take to engage empathy in an upcoming conversation.
  3. Be specific on what you will practice and when you want to practice it. (i.e. your next 1:1 or team meeting, in a conversation with your child, your spouse, or your colleague).
  4. Tune into the latest Side By Side Podcast episode “Before You Say A Word: Part 1” for more on developing self-leadership to help you with those difficult conversations.
  5. Share your thoughts and ideas on empathy in the comments below.

It’s worth also talking about about misperceptions of empathy and the potential misapplication of empathy for leaders. Join me next week to further the conversation on the impact of the empathetic leader by talking about the four things that empathy is not. 

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Annie Perdue Olson

Annie is founder of Leading Better Together, guiding leaders through the relationship and people challenges that sidetrack ministry. With 20+ years of experience in nonprofit management and pastoral ministry she equips people and teams to work better together. She holds a Master of Arts in Human Resources and Change Leadership from St. Thomas University and received her coaching certification from the Center for Coaching Excellence.

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