5 Reasons Why Empathy is the Difference Maker

Your co-worker cuts you off before you’ve entirely explained your idea.  Your boss prescribes you how to fix the production issue, but never even asks what your ideas might be.  Your spouse doesn’t bother to hold the door open when you are carrying in the groceries.  The 18 wheeler won’t let you merge in order to get past the accident.  All of these are signs of a lack of empathy and its persistence is eroding the relationships around you.  As DeLores Pressley wrote, “Empathy is the ability to experience and relate to the thoughts, emotions or experience of others. Empathy is more than simple sympathy, which is being able to understand and support others with compassion or sensitivity.”


So why do we need more empathy?  It is what makes us human. Most of the animal kingdom is working off of “me-first” instincts.  Kill or be killed.  You’re never going to see a crocodile share its prey with another adversary.  Empathy connects us and through that connection, we are able to compound on those connections to much greater success and well being.

Here are the 5 reasons why empathy is the difference maker:

  1. Understanding others helps develop relationships. Think about that guy at work who always brags about his fabulous European vacation and his wonderful new motorcycle. The guy you can’t get a word in edgewise with.  You know who I’m talking about.  Do you feel any warmth or connection with him?   Not likely.  Do you want to go above and beyond for him?  Not likely either.  Trust gets built when there is shared understanding.  Relationships are the foundation of organizations.  Unless there is trust and understanding, it’s difficult to have success.  Empathy is the re-bar in that foundation.
  1. Empathy ensures openness. In any relationship, whether it’s a marriage, partnership or corporation, openness is critical. Openness is the antithesis of secrecy. This is why everyone gets paranoid when the CEO’s office door is shut.  “Here come the layoffs.”  It also ensures that leaders aren’t prescribing the answers.  So, what happens is the co-worker brings an issue and their counterpart says, “What are your ideas?” instead of “This is the way you should do it.”  An openness to all possibilities creates innovation and breaking out of the status quo.  This is critical for organizations as well as personal relationships.
  1. Putting other’s interest first brings mutual respect. As written by Toby Norton, “Serotonin is the molecular manifestation of the feeling of pride—we get it when we perceive others like or respect us. On a deep level, we need to feel that we and our work are valued by others, particularly those in our group.” This helps reinforce positive feelings from everyone. “Hey Joe made sure I knew the numbers were off before I presented to the Board.”  I’ve got Joe’s back going forward.  This mutual respect compounds on itself like a ripple effect across the organization or department or family.  It’s the way we do things around here.
  1. Empathy makes it safe for us to fail. I can hear you whining. “But, Cathy, we don’t want to encourage failure.”  This is a pipe dream.  Of course we are going to fail.  At work, at home and at school.  If we don’t encourage failure, everyone starts hiding the evidence.  I don’t want Suzie to know that we had an error in the report.  I don’t want my manager to know that the product isn’t priced right.  If we cannot be transparent and fall on the sword when we fail, then neither will anyone else around us.  This breeds secrecy and distrust.  Everyone goes around constantly looking to repair their image.  It’s exhausting and demoralizing.  Empathy creates a safe place to fail.
  1. Feeling valued by others compels the group forward. As written by Norton, “Homo sapiens developed a herd instinct; thanks to those cooperative chemicals (i.e. serotonin and oxytocin), we find comfort when we’re part of a group.” According to Sinek, “Our confidence that we can face the dangers around us literally depends on feeling safe in a group. Being on the periphery is dangerous. The loner on the edge of the group is far more susceptible to predators than someone who is safely surrounded and valued by others.” It is a simple as saying “Is everything OK?” It’s paying attention to simple gestures like holding the elevator door, letting the car merge in or helping reset the room after the training.  These small things help create value and connection for everyone.  It keeps paying it forward on an ongoing basis.

Try incorporating more empathy in your life.  Listen without judgment.  Clarify your partner’s needs.  Be open to what is there.

7 Ways to Take the Road Less Traveled. My Daughter, My Hero.

I’m not here to give people voices because I don’t have the ability to do so for anyone but myself.  All I do is merely remind them that we are all human and that all stories are deserved of being heard.” – Natalie Robles

My daughter, Natalie, graduated from Duke University this past Sunday. I could not be prouder of her accomplishment. Not that it’s Duke or that she is graduating from college period. It’s that she has always taken the road less traveled; thrown herself into and embraced every experience. She has always followed her heart regardless of naysayers along the way. She has always been true to herself. She is my hero. My Daughter, My Hero

Natalie started school a year early. At the age of 4, she knew her alphabet and numbers and tested into kindergarten. In a time where parents are red-shirting (holding their kids back a year) so that they can excel at sports and academics, she was a maverick. She held her own and still placed into the accelerated classes throughout elementary school and into high school. As a sophomore in high school, she auditioned for an elite residential arts school (some 3 hours from home) and managed to be accepted into their prestigious music school. These are very brave steps for a 15 year old fledgling clarinetist but she did it. Her fearlessness, resilience, fortitude and aspirations made her my hero.

Natalie has a laundry list of attributes, but these are the one’s that stand out for me:

1. Resilience. Natalie bounces back even when things are tough. She had a terrible experience her Junior year of high school with a roommate. The roommate left school but Natalie returned the next year. She has had frost bite from backpacking in the snow and returned the following year for the same subzero experience.   She had an unpaid internship in NYC, living hand to mouth for 8 weeks and went back the following summer for yet another unpaid internship in NYC. She may struggle and stumble but she will not fall.

2. Curiosity. In Natalie’s freshman year of college, she hiked for 2 weeks in the Pisgah National forest, performed in a dance recital (she had never taken dance), played with the symphony, tromped around at half time at the football games in the marching band, joined the water polo team (yeah…a newbie), and taught at local elementary schools in her..ahem…”free time”. Natalie inhaled every opportunity. Not all of them were her cup of tea, but she tried them all on for size.

3. Openness. Natalie’s passion is documentaries. It aligns with her ability to let folks find their voice. She doesn’t rush. She doesn’t push. She is present and listens. She distills and edits and blends and creates magic. She is open to all possibilities. And we get to enjoy the product of her openness.

4. Empathy. Her first experience with documentaries was in Medillin, Colombia. She was selected for a Summer program during her freshman year to travel to South America and document families displaced by drug violence.  When she was instructed to interview some three to four families a day, she balked. She could feel the tension in folks as she tried to film. She knew they weren’t comfortable. She wanted to spend time with one family. She wanted to go back to the same family so that she could create trust. She did. She connects with folks and regardless of the cultural and language barriers, she honors them.

5. Decisiveness. Every family has disagreements. It might be what restaurant we are eating at or which movie to rent. The rest of us can get into a quagmire of indecisive infinite possibilities and unspoken agendas. Natalie takes the reigns and makes a decision. Done. Resolved. (Thanks)

6. Joy. As I write this, Natalie is having her wisdom teeth removed. I can hear her in the exam room laughing. She has an infectious laugh that I would recognize anywhere. She brings that joy and laughter to endless folks. No one is immune to her joy (especially her brother). They can crack each other up with just a look. She brings joy.

7. Bravery. Natalie went to a camp in the golden hinter lands of Northern California at the ripe old age of 8. It was emotional to leave your first born in what we later referred to as the “hippie” camp. When I returned to pick her up some three weeks later, she showed us the 20 foot high platform she had, while harnessed, jumped off of as she took a leap of faith to grab a trapeze. She has run a 10k obstacle course race, tried zero gravity and Bikram yoga, auditioned for countless music camps and organizations, and, her greatest feat, repelled up a mountain side after several years of conquering her fear. She faces her limiting beliefs.

I remember when Natalie left for Colombia some three years ago, she read a diary of a journey I had taken to South America some 30 years before. She said, “Mommy, I’m following in your footsteps”. In reality she has gone way beyond the steps I’ve taken. I can only hope to be as accomplished in my entire life as she has been in just 21 short years. My hero.

Placing Trust

In today’s environment of identity theft, phishing, ponzi schemes and political corruption, it can be difficult to place your trust, well, in practically anyone or any organization.   Just about every medium seems to have risks attached to it.  I’ve been in the middle of a phone call with a medical office and when they ask for identifying information, I start thinking, “Did I call them or did they call me? How do I know this is Dr. Smith’s office?” When I got a flu shot this year, they would not give it to me unless I gave them my social security number.  Really?  What does my social security number have to do with a flu shot?  Are they tracking my flu shot history and will this have an impact on my ability to collect social security someday? Doubtful but…

There is a slew of misinformation in this information saturated internet tangled world.  We can Google evidence for any case we want to make.  In “Republic, Lost” by Lawrence Lessig, the author makes the case that whether it’s the safety of  Bisphenol A (BPA) or cell phone usage an argument can be made either way.   In the case of BPA, it is a chemical that has been added to hard plastics like pacifiers and teething toys for over 40 years; there has been a slew of research on its safety.  pacifierWhen Lessig dug a little deeper, he found that the studies that were backed by industry found BPA to be safe whereas those that were funded by non-profits and educational institutions, found evidence that it isn’t safe.  The same held true for the safety of cell phones.  Industry backed studies found no issues with radiation.  Non-industry studies found a link.  Doesn’t this affect the way you view information?  Once there is money to be made, is the study unbiased?  What source do you trust?

Here are some tips to evaluating sources:

1. Money.  Follow the money.  If someone or some entity can make a buck off your trust, be wary.  My son has been offered “help” from various services to get college scholarships. Most came with a very steep price.  He found the help for free.  Follow the money.

2. Interest.  Who has your best interest?  Is there a profit or commission hidden in the small print?  If it’s not obvious why someone wants to help you, do some investigating.  I know that I verify charities on Charity Navigator (my favorite charity, Rotary International, is 4 star).  If it’s not listed on that website, unless it’s a local charity where I know someone who is directly involved, I move on.

3. Ads. Investigate the claims made in ads.  4 out of 5 dentists choose *****.   Who was behind that study?  How did this product or that service get rated number 1.  Do your homework on the promises made in ads.

4. Source. Consider the source.  Is this your neighbor or co-worker who is recommending the new restaurant in town or is it some anonymous person on Yelp.  Read many reviews before committing.  It’s easy to have pseudo reviewers who are really the entire related family of the restaurant owners writing glowing reviews.  Make sure you know the source.

5. Age.  Know how old a review or study is that you find online.  Nothing aggravates me more than when I can’t tell when a review was posted online.  If there is no date anywhere on the review, be careful.  I’ve made the mistake of going to a restaurant in a strange town only to find it had been closed for months.  If there isn’t a recent review, especially on something as volatile as a restaurant, assume it is closed.  Know how old the information is.

6. Openness. Double check the deal. I remember flying into Rio de Janeiro many years ago.  Some very friendly folks met us as we got off the plane with some helpful tourist information and the indication that we must purchase the booklet.  The information came with a price, $60.  When we asked if we “had” to buy the information, we were told no.  Don’t be pressured.

7. Gut.  Frequently you just have to go with your gut.  Many times over thinking something actually muddies the water.  Too much information can become analysis paralysis.  The kid on your front porch is selling “way too expensive” wrapping paper for his cub scouts; and you know that it’s the fund raising company that’s making all the money.  Maybe you don’t buy the wrapping paper and just make a donation directly to the cause.  Go with your gut.

I’m not an authority on which sources to trust or not in this world.  But a little caution can help avoid some pitfalls.  My son recently gave a homeless guy $20.  He looked him in the eye and said “spend this on some food”.  I don’t know where that guy went with that $20 but I can assure you that my son learned something from the experience.  Placing trust can be difficult and uncertain.