When being empathic people seek to see the other. They search for ways to connect with how the other thinks and how the other feels. It all happens to know how to act and react to what is happening for the other person. It is an essential skill in leading and coaching.
According to Dan Pontefract, the way to approach empathy is by combining three forms of empathy. For him, empathy starts with a cognitive lens to discover how the other person is thinking. It is finding where their headspace is. The second lens is there to feel how the other person’s heart feels. It is in combining both forms of empathy that one decides if and how one wants to take action towards that person. A person which may even be yourself.
Using this head, heart, and hands approach to empathy helps to develop empathy. And yet, it is worth it to look at some nuances.
Talking about photography David duChemin recently highlighted how the most difficult task of a photographer is to develop the ability to see the way the camera sees.
Where we can see in three dimensions, the camera can only see in two. When making pictures we have to consider the many parameters that come along with our camera, the chosen lens, and how they relate to the scene. By nature, the picture will be different from what we see.
When empathizing it is similar. We have to consider the way the other person is looking at the situation. It shifts according to the context the person is considering. There is shared reality, there is the reality of the person’s role and there is the reality of the person’s experience.
Reality as it is known and shared by the people involved leads to reviewing the situation to be objective. Someone who is taking that approach is seeking to put himself outside of the situation. It may be to do everyone justice or to review how adequate one’s beliefs are. It usually is a more intellectual approach that may make it hard to perceive how the person is feeling.
In every given situation, people are also in a role. The reality of that role consists of a task the person has to attend to as well as expectations from all the stakeholders involved. It is a situation in which that person may be using empathy himself to get a 360° view on the situation before concluding as to how to best achieve the given task. This can be a quite confusing situation as the different points of view to be considered also mean tension between them. Any decision will thus be met with some resistance and dislike. It makes the combination of feeling and cognition a difficult one to achieve.
It may lead the person into the reality of their experience in that situation. This is the most complex to connect with. And it is the reality that is the least visible. It is constructed with the person’s current experience of the situation and builds on his experience of life. It contains the person’s dreams, desires, beliefs, fantasies and may be seen by others as the least connected to a perceivable reality. It is a context that needs to be met through feeling and can rarely be accessed using cognition.
It can be slightly frightening to connect with it as it requires letting go of one’s worldview and thinking for a moment. But if the other two realities don’t allow us to connect, it is most probably in the experience that we’ll need to meet the other first.