Improving primal Empathy and Empathic Accuracy

At any given moment we are communicating vast amounts of information to one another about how we feel.  Through infinitesimal changes in musculature and then facial expressions, we signal to others our true emotions giving them clues about how to respond to us.  By attending carefully or mindfully to others we effectively minimise distortion.  Rather than understanding people’s experiences through our filters, we see their feelings more clearly and we can more accurately interpret their thoughts and perspectives.  

Robert Polet, stepped into a new position as president of the Gucci Group by communicating directly, listening and sharing food and good conversation with his staff, was able to convey who he was as a leader. Thereby addressing the natural anxiety people feel as a result of a major leadership change.  By doing this he quickly gained a sense of the emotional reality of his organisation.  

By talking with people and moving around he saw cultural norms in action and was better able to adjust his own behaviour quickly to build relationships in the organisation.  He is more likely to be able to avoid the cultural and relationship landmines that exist in any organisation and is also more likely to capitalise on individuals’ and teams’ strengths.  Additionally, he found allies in unexpected places.

He was aware that watching the emotional dance among people gives you the edge.  It gives you clues about what you are dealing with and how to manage a situation.  You can more easily decide when and how you interact to influence and guide people.

Often over-confidence and superficial bravado is a defence mechanism used to cover up inadequacies or fears.  All too often leaders throw up their hands and give up on connecting with people.  It is just too hard.  And that is exactly the opposite of what leaders should be doing in order to sustain effectiveness and maintain resonance in yourself and with others.  We need to be open, not closed, constantly exploring ourselves, others and the environment.  This will enable you to stay centred and calm even when the pressure is on.  

Mindfulness enables us to counter the effects of the Sacrifice syndrome propelling us into renewal. Below are exercises from Resonant Leadership by Richard Boyatzis to enhance self-awareness (Ref. Dr. R Boyatzis and Annie McKee : Resonant leadership)

Exercise:  Be Aware – Name That Feeling

Three times a day for a week, stop what you are doing, close your eyes and concentrate on how you are feeling.  Put a word to the feeling or feelings you are experiencing.  Do not analyse, just name it.  At first, this might take as long as five minutes and you might notice that the words you choose to name your feelings are simple, not nuanced.  For example, you may describe your feelings with words like “stressed” or “pressured” or “happy”.  As you practice, however, you will find that you are able to name your feelings much quicker and with more accuracy.  For example, “stressed” becomes “frustrated and a little bit anxious”, “happy” becomes “happy and proud of myself” or “grateful to my team”.

Exercise:  Read Non-Verbal and Emotional Clues More Effectively

In this exercise, you will attempt to surface your own almost unconscious “sense making” about others’ thoughts and feelings.  This is difficult and will take discipline, as most of us make sense of people and situations automatically and somewhat unconsciously.  

First select two or three people with whom you meet face to face regularly and spend twenty minutes or so writing some notes about what you think their typical reactions to you are.  Remember their words, their actions, their facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language.  Do not analyse – just name the emotional reactions you think you get from them and what you guess they think.  You might want to simplify this by thinking specifically about an incident or two when you were engaged in something together.

Then for a week or so discipline yourself to watch these individuals very carefully when you are together.  Try not to be too obvious; you might scare them.  Look at their eyes, their faces.  Note their posture, hand movements and overall body motion when you are together.  In this state of heightened awareness, pay attention to the “invisible clues” they give to what they are thinking and feeling.

Finally, at least once or twice a day, for each of the people you are studying take five minutes to write notes for yourself about what you have seen.  At first, you might simply write observations – what they did, what you saw.  Later on, as you get better at observing subtle clues, attempt to name the emotions you believe you have seen.  Try not to over interpret what you have seen and be careful not to confuse your emotions with theirs.

Level two

After a week or so of observing and attempting to understand people’s emotions and related thoughts, you can begin to test your assumptions.  Simply introduce statements or questions into conversation that focus on what the other person is actually feeling.  Do not name them – this causes defensiveness.  Try combining simple observations with naming your own feelings and light interpretation such as “This conversation is great! You seem as excited as I am about what we are planning” Alternatively you can search for understanding and develop your ability to interpret others’ reactions. Simply ask a question “How do you feel right now about that?” 

Check their answers with your own interpretations.

One can take this to the next level by starting to interpret the moods of groups.  This can be extremely complex and requires sophisticated expertise – but mastering this will enable you to effectively manage people’s energy toward a shared vision or goal.”

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