Wednesday, May 28, 2014

We are meant to face each other

Growing up in New York City I learned not to make eye contact with strangers. I've talked about the fear I learned in New York City before and this is another aspect of it. It's the way I learned to let my eyes glide over the people walking towards me, or to look down at my feet.

I learned that making eye contact was dangerous, but now I'm doubting that fear. I had many experiences where a stranger would make eye contact and then try to talk to me; once or twice it was a tourist asking for directions. I'd try to help if I could. Sometimes they were begging and trying to get me to give them money, and sometimes I would give them money. Other times, especially when I was alone, I would walk away quickly. Once I remember a guy who just wanted to smile at me. Still, I learned to be afraid of these interactions. I learned that I could get hurt.

How many of you live somewhere with a lot of people, and maybe have learned the same thing? Now that I've lived outside of the city for a few years I believe I've lost this skill; and I'm not sure I want it back.


I believe that our bodies are designed to interact with each other. We're built with faces that are flat, and faces that are full of expression. I believe that we are meant to look into each other's eyes and see how people are feeling, to react and to interact with those emotions and to hear other people's ideas.

Now when I visit a city I see that it takes hard work and focused effort to ignore people. This 'skill' of ignoring the people around us may be necessary in certain situations, but I believe it's hard for me to do because it's not what I'm meant to do. I'm going against my nature. What's easier for me is letting go of that. I'm trying to open myself up to making eye contact - making complete contact, that is, with everyone I meet in my life.

There's this famous scene from the old movie Crocodile Dundee where he says hello to everyone he meets while walking down a crowded street. You can see it in the preview:

It's a funny scene because most people in New York City don't act this way. I don't think it's funny anymore, think it's admirable.

How do you 'see' people in your town?


Wednesday, May 21, 2014

If you practice, empathy may become automatic - A feedback at work story

I was recently reminded that building empathy takes practice. It also takes effort, it takes repetition, and it is hard sometimes. But the payoffs are fantastic.

I have a job, and I know that part of working any job is being able to play nicely with the other kids in the schoolyard. If I don't get along I could get reprimanded, or even fired. I also have the added task of working closely with our customers. If I'm not 'nice', well, then they could decide they don't want our business anymore. Peter Shankman talks about this concept all the time on his blog.


The other day my boss passed me some feedback from a client* who was mad. He said, "Joe said you were pushy, and inflexible, and not customer focused." According to Joe, when working with me he felt "It's her way or the highway."

That's when empathy hit me right between the eyes.

I immediately felt what this guy was feeling. No matter what caused him to say those things, his perception immediately became my reality. I was standing next to him at the water cooler, listening to him moan about this horrible consultant he had to work with. I was a fly on the wall in his boss's office, while he went on and on about how difficult it was to talk with me. I was him, and at the same time I was me, remembering that time I had a really bad experience with a doctor's office. Things didn't happen the way I wanted them to, and I was unhappy about it.

What if I said these things? Why would I say them? How would I be feeling? I would be feeling hurt. I would be feeling angry at how I had been treated - and feeling like 'she wasn't being fair' and 'she wasn't helping me'.  Mostly, that 'she wasn't listening to me'.

All these thoughts helped me to put his comments in perspective. I remembered the day that I talked to him. I could see how my comments could be seen as pushy. I told my boss, "I know better, and I shouldn't have treated a client that way. I'll definitely try to do better next time. "


What was so great about this automatic empathy was that I didn't get defensive and I didn't argue. Practicing empathy allowed me to get past my own anger, and see the information for what it was. I was still MAD at what this guy said. I think that just makes sense, he was insulting me. I was just able to take that out of the equation when talking to my boss.

Anyone care to share a 'getting' or 'giving' feedback story (good or bad)? Please use the comments, or send me a message on our facebook page.


*Names and details have been changed. 

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Recent reading - The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison

Lately I've been doing a lot of 'empathy' reading. This isn't a formal book review, since I haven't finished the book yet.

"The Empathy Exams" by Leslie Jamison

At first, I wasn't sure if I was reading something true or made-up. By the second story, I was really confused, I thought it couldn't possibly be real.

Then I heard the author give an npr interview that made me realize that yes, this was definitely non-fiction. I wondered why I was so confused so I went back and re-read the first story and realized my mistake. The lines the author drew between herself and her subjects were very faint. In her essays she steps in so close to other people that she nearly becomes them. Perhaps it's her style, but it read like a novel to me.

The author also spent time asking herself if it was okay to feel empathy. She was an investigator; trying to find out the value of empathy both for the person feeling it, and for the subject of empathy (the person we are connecting with).

It gave me a lot to think about, and so far I'm really enjoying the book.


One thing I found interesting was her analogy* for meeting new people. She compared it to the idea of visiting a foreign country; people, she said, want to be the owners of their feelings. There are things we consider acceptable to talk about; and other things we do not like discussing at all, and we want to control who can access what part of ourselves.

I agree that it's a fun idea; thinking of people as the dictators of their own country. Some people have open borders and are welcoming. They love visitors and will allow anyone through, happily showing you around and forgiving any mistakes you make in dealing with the customs of the land. Other people show themselves as closed off (know any people like this?). If you want in, you have to have special permission, or you must have been born (in the country) part of their family to get full access. They tell the world that they don't want to share.

The idea that people can be possessive about their emotions really rung true for me. I was thinking about experiences I've had with people who are more willing to share their feelings if you gently request permission to cross their border. It's scary to think that someone is going to come marching right in. Who are they? Do they know our customs? Will they steal or hurt? We don't know unless we let them in. This is what being open is all about; being vulnerable to being hurt.

We possess our feelings like we possess our things. To borrow our things or to gain entry to our house, our culture tells us that we must ask permission. As much as I love this list of empathy traps, I would add 'not asking permission' to the list. If I say to you, "Oh, I'm so sorry to hear about your dead cat. I'm sure that feels bad.", I'm marching across your border. I'm assuming I already know the customs (feelings) here and I can tell you all about it. I may as well visit a foreign country and assume everyone there speaks English. On the other hand, if I say "Oh, I'm so sorry to hear about your dead cat. I can't imagine how that feels, do you want to talk about it?" Then I'm letting them know that it's okay if they want to share their feelings, but it's also okay if they don't. I'm asking permission to cross their border.

What do you think of this idea?


*This was her analogy, not mine, I take no credit for it. These are just my musings on her idea. If you want to see the full concept - please go pick up the book and send the author some kudos.