Join Britt Andreatta for an in-depth discussion in this video Developing empathy, part of Leading with Emotional Intelligence (2013).
Empathy is a major cornerstone of emotional intelligence. Empathy is the awareness of, and connection to, others needs, feelings, and concerns. Our ability to accurately sense these things in others is directly tied to our ability to do the same for ourself. Once you get adept at knowing your own feelings, needs, and concerns, it's easier to read them in others. While we cannot always sense the physical sensations another has, we still have lots of information available to us. Let's look at some of your major sources. First, you can listen to their words.
What people say gives us a lot of information, and insight, into what they're feeling. One trick here is to separate their thoughts from their feelings. Thoughts are certainly helpful information, so you don't want to ignore those. But you also want to listen for the feelings. I found that people actually use feeling words in their sentences, such as anxious, overwhelmed, and hopeful. You can train yourself to listen for feeling words. Second, you can read their facial expressions. Three major zones of the face, eyes, nose, and mouth, each tell us something important.
For example, when we're happy, our eyes are often crinkled at the edges, whereas our eyes are wide-open when surprised, and we tend to blink faster when we're scared. Third, you can listen to their voice. The tone and pitch of our voice also indicates emotion, for example, when we're angry we tend to be louder and speak in a terse manner, and when we're excited we tend to talk faster and at a higher pitch. I've added a handout in the exercise files to help you learn more about facial expressions and vocal tones. Next, their body language gives us some good clues, too.
How people hold their arms, face their body and lean, tell us a lot about what they're feeling. Arms open is a sign of openness. Where folded or crossed arms is a sign of defensiveness. If they face their body towards you or lean towards you, they're expressing interest. Whereas, they would demonstrate being closed off by facing slightly away, or leaning away from you. Fifth, you want to assess consistency. When the words, facial expression, tone, and body language all align with the same emotion, happiness for example, you can be pretty confident that they're feeling happy.
But you want to pay close attention to when things don't line up. We have all had the experience of asking someone how they are, and they use the words "I'm fine.", but clearly in a tone that was not okay. When things don't line up, something else is going on. One cause can be distraction. Here's a common example. Your friend is looking at their smartphone and reading an email while also talking to you. They may be demonstrating feelings for both the email and the topic you're discussing. Another cause is discomfort. They're not ready or perhaps able to talk about what's really going on.
This can sometimes be an issue of wanting privacy. They know what they're feeling, but they don't want to talk about it, or they may not know what they're feeling or why. A simple question from you can help sort this out. You can say something like, I get the feeling that this is uncomfortable. Would you like to talk about this with me? I'm happy to be supportive if I can. This conveys openness on your part and gives them a choice about how to proceed. Just be sure you honor their choice once they make it. Another source can be that the person is attempting to deflect the truth, or even lie. This is often the first assumption we jump to when we pick up on inconsistencies, but it's important to check out the other possible sources first.
Finally, remember that some people have physical or mental conditions that affect how they express emotions or how well they can read and respond to emotions in others. For example, people in the autism spectrum have difficulty in this area. Your sixth strategy is to simply ask people. It's surprising to me how often people don't use this simple, but incredibly effective strategy. Think about how much you can learn by asking someone, can you tell me more about what you're feeling? Or, I'd like to learn more about your needs and concerns. Would you be willing to share them with me? Take some time to observe others and use these strategies to learn more about people in your life.
With some attention, you can become very good at accurately reading their emotions, needs, and concerns.
Learn what emotional intelligence is and how it factors in at work and discover concrete techniques for raising your own emotional quotient (EQ). This includes perceiving yourself accurately, exercising emotional self-control, practicing resilience, and developing empathy. Then turn those lessons around to build your awareness of others and learn to inspire helpful communication and manage conflict.
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- What is emotional intelligence?
- Cultivating emotional intelligence
- Exercising emotional self-control
- Working with your triggers
- Getting to know others
- Maximizing team performance
- Building influence