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The Empathy Challenge: How to Share Support When You Don’t Share Another’s Experience

I’ve been studying the leadership landscape much more closely over the last several years, and one aspect of it clearly took on a higher level of relevance in 2020 – empathy. 

With unprecedented disruptions — the pandemic, politics, cultural discord — taking an emotional toll, I heard more and more discussions about how leaders needed to empathize with the people under their care.

I touched on empathy in Transfluence, which was published last fall. Around that same time, however, I began to realize it was a bigger and more nuanced challenge than I previously understood. So I began digging into just what empathy really is, whether it’s achievable, and why it seems so difficult to lead effectively when empathy doesn’t come easily. 

The more I dug, the more I found a great many misconceptions about empathy. As a result, there are far too many simplistic solutions that often leave leaders with frustrations rather than positive results. Then as I began organizing what I was learning and putting it into words, it became clear that my essay-in-progress was a perfect complement to my book on transformative influence. That’s how it grew into a bonus chapter that I hope will help leaders like you understand empathy in a better way so you can have a more positive influence on those you lead.

The bonus chapter — Rethinking Empathy: How to Share Support When You Don’t Share Another’s Experience — will be available in September as a free download. Please sign up for my mailing list here so you can be alerted when it’s ready.

Most discussions on empathy stray pretty quickly from the true definition of the word, which is “the ability to share someone else’s feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in that person’s situation.” Some dictionaries use the word “understand,” as in “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” 

That type of empathy, I’ve come to believe, is great, but it’s elusive. For most leaders, in fact, it’s unnatural. And in many situations, it’s downright impossible. So the bonus chapter re-examines the term with a focus on what you actually can and should do when empathy is in high demand. Because even when we can’t be empathetic – when we can’t possibly understand another person’s emotional experiences – we still need to respond appropriately. That’s our calling as leaders. And hopefully this bonus chapter will help you answer that call more effectively. I also hope it will inspire you to start using some of its practical tips right away. 

In fact, there’s a timely challenge you can take up right now that will help you experience the benefits of rethinking empathy. After more than 18 months of a global pandemic that has often been described as putting the world “in the same storm but different boats,” we are approaching the 20th anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks. I believe it was the last national event, before the pandemic, that profoundly and collectively changed who we are and how we live, albeit in different ways for different people. 

I use a personal story about September 11 in the bonus chapter, because it’s a great illustration of how difficult it can be to truly demonstrate real empathy when we can’t fully understand what the other person is going through. And, yet, when it comes to honoring the victims and heroes associated with September 11, we can do something — we must do something. 

One option is to join me in supporting the 9/11 Stair Climb, whose participants, I think, pursue a true act of empathy by walking in the steps of others. 

In 2005, five Denver firefighters met at a downtown office building to climb the equivalent of 110 stories in full turnout gear in memory of the 343 New York City firefighters who were killed in the line of duty at the World Trade Center. That’s up and down more than 2,000 steps. 

By 2010, the stair climb had partnered with the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF) to draft a model that could be used nationwide. The event now occurs in more than 40 cities. Firefighters put on and carry anywhere from 40 to 75 pounds of gear and recreate the climb of their fallen brothers, inspiring us to pursue acts of empathy even when we can’t experience the same emotions.

The bonus chapter is free, so you can support this worthy cause by making a donation that’s no less than what you felt like the chapter was worth. You also can take part in one of the climbs (without the gear). If you’re in Colorado, the 2021 Colorado 9/11 Memorial Stair Climb at the Red Rocks is open for all to participate, but you can also sponsor teams and stair climbs in other cities. All donations go to the NFFF and the FDNY Counseling Services Unit. 

You can find an event near you — or get details on how to organize one — at the NFFF’s website here

Most of us will never know what it was like at ground zero, but we can pay their heroism forward. 

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