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Adopting Empathy When It Doesn't Come Naturally

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I'm not very empathetic. Of the 34 strengths on the CliftonStrengths assessment, it falls at number 26 on the list, what Gallup would call a "lesser strength." Yet for most of my life I've been a people-helper.

Does that mean I've been in the wrong field? Maybe, maybe not. 

When I first told my mom that I was going to major in psychology as a college freshman, she was a bit concerned (moms don't hide this very well...). In contrast to my sister, who was far more emotive and expressive, my more reserved, solitary nature didn't seem to fit with a career working with people. 

After the initial surprise, she recognized that my even-keeled temperament might be an asset. As I recall, what she actually said was something like, "If someone said, I'm going to fly a rocket to the moon or something else that was off the wall, you'd just say, "Uh huh. Tell me more."

I stuck with my major with her full support.

(side note: if you want to see how her hypothesis was put to the test in the most unexpected way, you can read more here!)

Empathy, the ability to stand in someone else's shoes, isn't binary.  

Instead, it lives on a sliding scale with the possibility of it shifting at any time in response to any set of circumstances.

For some, who suffer from a personality disorder or social disability, empathy is challenging and has a more limited range at the lower end of the scale. For others, the natural empathy "set point" may be higher or lower by nature, but has a broader range of potential with practice and attention. 

CliftonStrengths language defines the natural strength of empathy as being able to "sense the emotions of those around you." If you have this strength, you "feel what [others] are feeling as though their feelings are your own. Intuitively, you are able to see the world through their eyes and share their perspective."

For people with this Strength, empathy takes less energy.

Their instinctive ability to just "get it" is powerful and others are often drawn to people who have this strength.

For the rest of us, we have to work a little harder. It takes more energy. We have to be intentional about tuning in and listening to both spoken and unspoken words. We have to draw on our other strengths to make people feel heard and understood and preserve our own energy in the process. 

Personally, I've learned that a combination of my top strengths often serve as a "stand in" for my lesser strength of Empathy. While my number one strength of Relator most often plays this role, I need the others to play supporting roles, too. 

So am I mis-employed? No. 

But I did have to learn the skills to be empathetic through my counseling and coach training and also learn how to draw on my natural strengths to stand in the gap for Empathy.

Here are 3 ways you can learn to adopt empathy when it doesn't come naturally.

  1. Surround yourself with people. The best way to build empathy is to practice it. You can't practice it in a vacuum, pretending to be with others. You need to be a space where you are surrounded by people who are like you and, more importantly, those who are not. Be an observer and notice how other people act and listen to what they say in good times and in bad. The broader your exposure to others, the more you will naturally adopt empathy.
  2. Get out of your comfort zone. Change doesn't happen without challenge. If you're constantly in a safe place, you will have limited opportunities to adapt and flex to things that are uncomfortable. Go to places where you are the minority. Seek conversations with people who are not like you and may even scare you a little bit. The more you push yourself to grow the more you empathetic you will become in the process. 
  3. Pause before judging. If you're anything like me, you can be quick to make unfair judgments about a person or their situation. My Type 1 Enneagram strength can lead me quickly down this path. To counteract that knee-jerk reaction, I try to catch myself and remember that there's more to the story than I know. When I remind myself that I don't know what's really going on and adopt grace instead of judgment, empathy flows much more freely.

This week's Side by Side podcast episode with my co-host Annie heightened my awareness of the need for empathy for those who are challenged with disabilities. And reminded me that we are all far more alike than we are different. 

Please note, empathy is not the same thing as sympathy. One says, "I can imagine what that feels like" while the other says, "I feel sorry for you." 

People don't need sympathy nearly as much as they need our empathy.

If there's anything the world needs now, it's more empathic conversations with one another with no agenda other than to understand each other better. 

What a world that would be. 


Listen to this week's podcast episode >> Engaging with the Disabled in our Community.