Empathy: Making the Connection

By March 13, 2013Inspiration, Leadership

Psychology Today defines empathy as:

“…the experience of understanding another person’s condition from their perspective. You place yourself in their shoes and feel what they are feeling. Empathy is known to increase prosocial (helping) behaviors. “

Simply stated, empathy is:

  • Understanding another’s perspective – the path they are walking on and what they are feeling along the way
  • Beneficial to we what we do – helping others more often

Empathy Passing By

A better way to consider empathy is to watch this 4:24 minute video produced by the Cleveland Clinic:

The quote at the start is just the beginning of empathy.

“Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant.” – Henry David Thoreau

When I watched this video, two thoughts went through my mind immediately. First, if only we could make the connection, have the conversation, we would enhance our understanding. Second, no one’s life is perfect.

As you consider my two thoughts, you may think they are disconnected. You might be right but give me a chance.

Making the Connection

Empathy Requires Human ConnectionEach day, count the times you do not make a connection with the person next to you. Just think of the places you stand:

  • In the coffee shop
  • In the elevator
  • In the lunch line
  • At the grocery checkout

It isn’t getting into the details of a person’s life in these moments, but it is about extending a kind remark or greeting. Brief acknowledgements and exchanges create moments of relief and flashes of kindness. Small connections can lead to greater conversations at later times.

David Brooks wrote a few years ago about how empathy doesn’t necessarily lead to action. We may notice, but we don’t change our behavior. This may be true, but we need to make a connection first. I believe we are making fewer connections with the people directly around us. This is the behavior we need to change first in order to gain added empathetic actions.

Maybe with all the social media connections we are missing the real connections as real people pass us by almost unnoticed. In recent articles, there is a conversation about Facebook fatigue, too. In a recent CNET article,

“The Pew study found that 61 percent of the Facebook users who responded have taken extended, weeks-long breaks from the site.”

Are we becoming too busy, too fatigued, to see through the eyes of the person next to us?

Nothing’s Perfect

Now to the seemingly disconnected thought: Nothing is perfect. In Facebook, all seems so wonderful – vacations, smiling faces, joys, brags, and many other just so perfect things. Maybe this is where the fatigue is coming in. We really know that no one’s life is a Disney story book. Challenges arise and not all of them are resolved with a happy ending.

Maybe we have become too concerned about social media metrics that we begin to tune out of real interactions. It has become a numbers game rather than a quality one. And, quality interaction doesn’t mean just the things going well; it covers our challenges as well.

We need to get real. We need to understand. We need to feel.

Empathy Connected

Our call to action is two-fold:

First, Henry David Thoreau’s challenge was to look “look through each other’s eyes.” What this means is we need to really feel what is going on inside. Empathy is not faceless; it is not a glance. Empathy is about making a human connection.

Our call to action is simply to make a human connection as often as we can wherever we can.

Second, life is really messy at times. Maybe the eyes we are looking through need to drop their guard more often, opening up and letting others in. At times, we need help. We need understanding. We need empathy.

Our call to action is simply to let our guards down and let others see life in full – joys, messiness, tears, laughs. Life contains all, and empathy can only be given and received when we understand.

Changing Our Connection Behavior

Here’s the metric for the weeks ahead. Rather than talking about Klout or Kred or number of hits on timelines or chats, let’s publish the number of how many times we made a connection to the person next to us. Let’s publish the numbers of how many times we saw through someone’s eyes and really understood what was on their minds and in their hearts. Let’s record these real human connections in our mind, our soul… opening our ears and hearts to really understand.

This is life in real. This is empathy in practice.

How do you practice empathy? How open are you to conveying your life’s successes and challenges?

Jon Mertz
Jon Mertz is one of the Top 100 Thought Leaders in Trustworthy Business and highlighted as one of the Leaders to Watch in 2015 by the American Management Association. He also is the author of Activate Leadership: Aspen Truths to Empower Millennial Leaders. Jon serves as vice president of marketing at Corepoint Health. Outside of his professional life, Jon brings together a community to inspire Millennial leaders and close the gap between two generations of leaders.
Jon Mertz
Jon Mertz

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  • Yvonne says:

    Love your Blogs!

  • Johann Gauthier says:

    Well written and very timely and thoughtful (peace) piece Jon.

    Your call to action is heard. I will put it to action and keep you posted on progress !


  • Kelly Silay says:

    A really great blog post! A lot of what I heard throughout reminded me of vulnerability which, in my opinion, is a foundation for empathy. I think it’s easy to see images or hear stories through our hyper-connected, global world that evoke empathy. But I think real empathy lies in being vulnerable enough to not only share yourself with someone else and ask to do the same with them, but to share yourself with yourself. Coming from Jesuit higher ed, I rely on a train of thought and reflection that feeds off of St. Ignatius’ “Examen” and think it could really work here. When we face interactions with others we can process them – what did I feel good about during that, what didn’t I feel good about, what can I do next time, what do I need to be able to do that next time. Reflecting on our interactions with others, or lack thereof, is just as important as actually interacting with them. It can say a lot about who we are – our strengths and weaknesses – and what we can do to have more – and more meaningful – interactions with other people that are based on empathy.

    For me, this reflection helps me be more authentic in the empathy I have and give. It allows me to have more empathetic energy and challenges me. Why didn’t I talk with the other person in the waiting room? Why am I more concerned with profile picture “likes” in this moment? What will I need next time to engage with the subway rider that is standing shoulder to shoulder with me? What went well with the conversation I had with the store clerk? Etc. This reflection helps me place myself in the larger world and allows the larger world to have a place inside of me. Simply reflecting has created more empathy, vulnerability, trust, awareness, and mindfulness within me that allows me to give all that back to the world.

    This post really helped me think about and articulate my own stance on empathy and I really appreciate you thought-provoking, meaningful words!

    • Jon M says:

      Wow! Really great insights, Kelly, as well as how your experiences and education have impacted your views on empathy. Reflection plays such a key role in developing our empathy, learning as we go and getting better at it as we move forward. I am very grateful for your insights on this. Thank you. Jon

  • nicferguson says:

    Another excellent post Jon.

    It’s so easy to miss the countless opportunities to connect and show empathy with ‘real’ people everyday.

    This is sad, for in doing so we fail to play our part in making a difference wherever and whenever we can, and we also miss out on countless learning opportunities and moments of encouragement from others.

    With ever increasing demands on our time and attention, its even more important that we continue to be intentional about making off-line connections too.

    Thanks for provoking more thought!

    • Jon M says:

      Thank you, Nicholas, for your comments and insights. I like the point about failing to “play our part,” We do have a part to play in our communities, and we need to embrace it to build a better life story for ourselves and those around us. Appreciate your thoughts. Thanks! Jon

  • Hiten Vyas says:

    Hi Jon,

    This was another excellent and thought provoking post.

    Regarding demonstrating empathy, I do this through coaching as I first need to see the world through the perspective of the person I’m helping. However, this is in a professional setting. I need to make more effort at making proper connections in the real world. I used to do this a lot more before. However, as you say, spending more time online and running businesses etc with a strong online presence means we’re spending less time in the real world.

    Thanks for calling on us to make real connections. I will do this the next time I step outside.

    Thank you.

    • Jon M says:

      Thanks for adding your thoughts, Hiten. Appreciate it. There is a balance, and we need to ensure we are making the connections in our neighborhoods and with the people standing next to us. Thank you! Jon

  • Alli Polin says:

    Appreciate this call to action, Jon. I’ve been making small talk with the people at the grocery store who check me out lately. I never thought I’d have anything in common with them but when I ask a simple question, I have learned about their children, their spouses, and vacations that they took years ago. I’m somehow left with the feeling that they were just waiting for someone to really see them and ask more than “what’s the total?”

    • Jon M says:

      Great starting moments… it begins with a small question of interest. This is the connection we need to make more often. I am committed to it! Thanks, Alli! Jon

  • Suzie Carr says:

    I must admit, Jon, that I am guilty of passing people daily and not taking notice. Why? I don’t mean to… so I suppose my ‘excuse’ is it’s because I am too busy. Terrible! I tend to just rush by a group of colleagues on route to the printer or the ladie’s room or to my car… I’ve caught myself leaving the building without saying goodbye to people in offices I pass, only to stop myself, back up and offer a friendly wave. I interact more with people online these days than with the people sitting a few yards away in the next office space. hmmm.. this post reminded me of that. So Thank you! Time for me to go say good morning to a few folks:-)

    • Jon M says:

      We all are guilty of hurrying by or not taking the time. I know I am, but I am trying to change that and be more mindful. Appreciate your voice in this conversation and for your honesty as well. Great stuff! Thanks. Jon

  • Great call to action, Jon! At a time when there are more ways for us to connect electronically, we actually connect far less. One of my friends teaches speaking from the heart, and the first exercise she always starts her class with is to have participants pair up, look each other in the eye and say energetically–not aloud–to the other person, “Thank you for being here.” We can do that anywhere we go–take a moment to say energetically to everyone in sight, “Thank you for being here.” Another point I want to make is that, while empathy seems to be about the other person, we can’t truly be empathetic if we can’t extend to ourselves empathy in our own low moments. That’s when our eyes drop and we don’t want to let another catch our gaze. So, let’s start by being aware of being kind to ourselves. Otherwise, we can’t be that to others.

    • Jon M says:

      Alice, I agree! We need to extend empathy to ourselves… creates more understanding and removes the guards we sometimes put up. A very valid and needed add to empathy. Thanks for taking the conversation up a level and adding an essential view we need to take and do something with. Thank you! Jon

  • Really great, Jon — especially liked your “metric” at the end. The video and your post are very moving.

  • Terez says:

    While social media can be a great tool for connecting with others around the globe, we must not forget it’s even more important to nurture our “real world” relationships. Very moving and timely post Jon. Thanks.

    • Jon M says:

      So agree, Terez. We need to connect in our neighborhoods and with the people next to us…. even if just for a moment. Thanks so much for your comment. Appreciate it! Jon

  • You got me thinking, Jon. I believe there’s a difference between empathy and compassion; the later being empathy + call to action. Empathy is a passive emotion, whereas compassion is an active one. Nevertheless, making a direct connection and having live face-to-face interaction is of utmost importance and necessity. We need to take time out from our online social obligations, and make more real ones, offline. Thanks for highlighting and reminding us of this fact of life.

    • Jon M says:

      Great add, Harleena. Your formula is wonderful, and compassion may be the key to enabling empathy. It is taking the next step in doing something with what we feel and understand. Thanks for adding the conversation! Jon

  • Joy Guthrie says:

    Extraordinarily powerful, Jon. Great post.

    • Jon M says:

      Thank you, Joy. Appreciate it.

      • Bonnie Squires says:

        Wonderful post and great comments to.

        For me I all ways find it easier to make
        a connections with older people. Where
        we live there all ways some one to say hi
        to and have a face to face talk.

        Like the winters who live across the street
        from us we met threw our dogs. They have
        2 we have 1. They are a older couple and
        when we had the bad snow storm our kids
        shoveled the snow for them.

        There so many ways you can connect with
        people just a hello my brighten some one’s day
        or a smile. I find it doesn’t have to be any thing

        To when your in the store is a good way to connect
        with some one. Our children have done it with the cashier
        just by saying hello or if it was a holiday they would wish
        them a happy holiday. Another thing is our son likes gum
        he will ask them if they like a piece of it.

        All so seeing the militarily at the store just amazed me i
        mean ever check out was full with the army men. I walked
        up to one man and said hello and thanked him. He looked
        so pleased and happy.

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