Enhancing EQ Through Empathy

Posted 07/01/19 JT Turba

Earlier this year my colleague Steve Shoemake shared a blog called The Culture Change. In this blog he shared a simple four-pronged EQ framework. One component of this framework is social awareness. 

Within the context of cultural transformation, or change, Shoemake refers to socially-aware people as individuals who “think of others that are going through a change at least as much as themselves (and possess) a high degree of empathy.”

So, are there really any pragmatic steps one can take to boost his or her self-awareness?  By diving into empathy – defined by Google almighty as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another” – I believe there are actionable ways that we can exhibit more empathetic behaviors, and more importantly, start to improve our long-term social awareness and thus our emotional quotient (EQ).

Empathic behavior starts with listening.  In Dale Carnegie’s book How to win Friends & Influence People, Carnegie tells an anecdote that features him flying on an airplane with a stranger.  By barely speaking, and simply (and selflessly) lending an ear, the stranger thanks Dale and refers to him as a “great conversationalist.”  Simply listening and allowing others to speak without interjecting is a great start. 

One simple corrective action is to avoid turning the focus of a conversation to ourselves.  We can demonstrate empathy by “sitting” in the moment with someone and following the sharer’s lead by using a “feeling” adjective that mirrors their verbal and non-verbal expressions.

Example of empathy:

Jim:  How did things turn out with that deal you worked on last Friday, Sally?

Sally (looking down at the floor glumly):  Unfortunately, it didn’t go as well as we’d hoped.  We’ll know more later this week.

Jim: Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.  That’s so frustrating, how are you feeling about that?

Sally:  Well, you took the words right out of my mouth… I’m very frustrated because I thought we were going to get this done!

Often, we subconsciously attempt to relate to others by sharing about our week, or the things that happen to us, which we believe correlate to what others shared in the interest of helping us to better connect.  When we unintentionally turn the focus of the conversation towards ourselves and away from the people we’re attempting to connect with, we sabotage our ability to empathize.

Truly empathizing with another person requires us to avoid asking about details of the situation.  The person we’re listening to can provide those details if he or she feels compelled.  Empathy focuses on the emotions and allowing for space to process those emotions.  I recommend reflecting with an adjective (a “feeling word”) that closely matches the emotions shared by the “feeler”.

For example, in the scenario above, if Jim had responded with “That’s so frustrating, what happened?”  it prompts the person to enter problem-solving mode versus understanding or sharing the person’s feeling.  Remember, empathy is putting yourself in another’s proverbial shoes, which is the best way to truly master social awareness. 

Empathy requires a bit of patience, but I’ve often found that people will naturally resolve many of their own dilemmas when we allow them the space to verbally process their emotions with an active listener.  How refreshing would it be to simply listen, allow others to process feelings, and come to their own conclusions about how to handle scenarios?  Since they’ve arrived at a conclusion on their own, people also tend to walk away with a sense of ownership of next steps.  In short, using active listening skills and exhibiting empathic traits often frees us from the burden of feeling like we need to problem solve for someone else.

A few other lightning round improvements that can help us improve our ability to empathize and our overall EQ, include:

  • Eliminate distractions.  Empathy requires 100% focused attention.  Attempting to empathize while we are juggling priorities, looking at our laptops, smartphones, etc. will derail your efforts. Instead, inform the person that you really appreciate that he or she is bringing these items to you, and that you’d like to make sure you can give them your undivided attention.  Suggest a time and place to meet so that you can give the person your undivided, distraction-free focus.
  • Once you’ve eliminated distraction and can focus intently on the person, pay specific attention to your body language.  If you’re sitting, lean forward slightly and intentionally.  Give the person your undivided attention and demonstrate a genuine interest while listening intently.
  • Learn to be comfortable with a bit of silence.  We’re often tempted to fill silence with conversation.  Allowing people to process their thoughts and feelings for a few extra seconds of silence can be the difference in experiencing a breakthrough in a conversation.
  • Change doesn’t happen overnight.  Try implementing one small behavior change at a time!