On building empathy

Early early in my career, a friendly coworker said to me, “You’re like, my work husband.” It was an odd declaration, so I laughed and asked what prompted her to feel this way. She explained, “My husband always tries to fix my problems at home, you do that here at work.” 

At the time, it felt like a badge of honor. I was helping by trying to fix things, and I’m good at fixing problems. So, everything was peachy, right? 

Looking back, I wonder if she was actually frustrated with my reactions. Expressing challenges and problems isn’t an invitation to solve problems, but a vulnerable gift that requests to be seen and heard. I had skipped listening and validation in favor of fixing. 

Becoming a full time community organizer for WordPress was an impetus for shifting my mindset. One of the hardest and most rewarding aspects of being a community organizer is that, in building close relationships with people, you learn about their lives: the good and the heartbreaking. 

What is empathy?

Very simply, empathy is the ability to understand and share in the feelings of another person. I’ve frequently heard empathy coupled with “perspective taking”, or the ability to take on the perspective of another person.

I believe that the vast majority of people have empathy, but that channeling that ability is a less understood and practiced skill. Moments of joy are easy to relate to and celebrate. But moments of pain, with hurt and discomfort, are straight up difficult, especially if it involves someone you care about. 

As a community organizer, empathy is one of my most utilized skills, especially in this past year. Here is what I’ve learned. 

Give people the space to express themselves

When people have difficult things to share, they have the challenging task of finding the right words to capture what it is they are feeling. This can lead to lulls in conversation, and it can be uncomfortable to be in that silence. 

Fight the urge to fill that silence, and instead, give that person the space to process. If they take a very long time, saying something like, “I can feel how hard this is for you. I’m here.” is a great way to show that you care, without adding additional pressure.  

Don’t focus on having the right thing to say

I love this short video narrated by Brené Brown on empathy, and the last line has always stuck with me. 

Because the truth is, rarely can a response make something better. What makes something better is connection. 

– The always insightful Brené Brown

During difficult conversations, especially with people you care about, it may be instinctual to want to make things better. After all, we want them to feel better! But think back on all the difficult times you’ve been through. Could anyone really have said something to make you feel better?

Saying something along the lines of, “Gosh, that seems so difficult, and I can see why you are feeling this way. Thank you so much for sharing with me.” goes a really long way.

One final benefit of not needing to find “the right thing to say” is that it frees you up to really, truly listen to what is being shared. 

Perspective taking is not responsibility taking

There is a very fine, important balance in taking on someone else’s perspective and recognizing your own feelings. Without this understanding, it is easy to fall into the trap of feeling responsible for someone else’s feelings. Empathy can turn detrimental, if our own feelings succumb entirely to someone else’s. 

I won’t lie, the emotional part of my work is frequently what I find the hardest – it sucks to see good people struggle, and empathizing with those challenging feelings takes a toll. Whenever I have a difficult, emotional conversation, I always pause afterwards to breathe, and remind myself that perspective taking is not responsibility taking. 

But finding this balance actually strengthens the ability to be empathetic and genuinely listen to people’s hardships. If, with every difficult conversation, we were so burdened by feelings, it would all be simply Too Much. As community organizers, and people who deeply care about helping others, finding this balance enables us to continually have hard conversations, and to help more people be seen and heard. 

Empathy is an invaluable skill, and brings about vital connections. And at the end of every day, don’t we all deserve that? 

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