A simple, fun empathy experiment

ObservingWhat does it mean to be empathetic?

If it doesn’t come naturally for you – and according to psychological studies, it’s not natural for about 80% of the population – then the task of becoming more empathetic seems daunting at best, and impossible at worst.

At least, that’s what some of my clients have said.

Then I give them empathy-training homework: a simple, fun, and even playful experiment for them to do with anyone and everyone they encounter, from the grocery-store clerk to their cranky teenager, and from their micro-managing boss to their frazzled co-worker.

And then they write me emails filled with exclamation points about how fascinated they are by the depth and quality of the conversations they have when they play this simple game.

There are two parts to the experiment.

Part One: observation

What is that person over there feeling? Can you tell by watching them, seeing the expressions on their face, the ways they move and hold themselves?

That’s it. It’s that simple – and that complex – and that thought-provoking – and that deep.

Practice this for a few days, and I think you’ll be surprised by what you learn, especially about people who are close to you.

Part Two: validation

The first part is about playing and story-telling.

This second part is a little more audacious, because now you’re going to ask for validation of your observations.

Start with someone you trust, and don’t start when you’re in the throes of a disagreement or any sort of emotionally-charged situation.

Tell them about the experiment and ask if it’s okay if you reflect back your observation to them to see if you’re correct.

If they say “No,” then obviously you’ll stop right there!

If they say, “Yes,” then say something like, “Well, it seems to me that you might be feeling …”

You’ll notice that this is loaded with conditional language: “seems to me” and “you might be.” Always avoid telling someone how they feel – or, of course, how they “should” feel; there’s absolutely no benefit to your understanding, your development of empathy, or to their experience, in doing that. Instead, be open-minded and curious about how accurate you are, notice when you miss the mark, and see if you can figure out why you missed.

Then what?

Once you’ve gained experience with both Part One and Part Two, you’ll find it’s a splendid tool to use in difficult conversations. At that point, of course, you’ll no longer ask permission to share your observations, because you’ll have become skilled in the delicate art of conditional framing: “It seems like you might be feeling …”

Even (perhaps especially) in the heat of conflict, people crave understanding.  If – even in the heat of conflict – you can offer that to someone, you’ll find the conflict eases and your connection with the other person improves.

When you try this, I hope you’ll let me know how it goes!