Does anyone recall the Aesop’s fable, The Fox and The Stork? The fox invites the stork over for dinner but serves their soup in a dish the fox can easily lap up the soup from; however, the stork’s long beak makes it impossible to drink from.
In retaliation, the stork then invites the fox over for a meal served in a long, narrow-necked bottle. The fox’s snout, of course, could not reach the food but it was simple for the stork to eat from.
Now there’s always been many lessons that can be taken away from a single Aesop’s fable like in the instance of this one we learning two things: two wrongs do not make a right and more importantly, we could prevent a lot of hurt and misunderstandings if we were simply sensitive to each other’s needs.
But how often have we just assumed we know what others need or how things should be? And then just gone ahead and done things without talking about?
We’re guilty of it and what’s silly is that we’ve all know the frustration of being unheard or having people decided things on our behalf. It’s annoying to say the least but it’s also suffocating and counterproductive to what we intend for each other.
There’s no better feeling than the feeling of being heard and understood, even if it doesn’t mean you get your way or that the other person agrees with you – it’s great to feel like someone put themselves in your shoes for a moment.
It’s a kindness we can extend to each other that isn’t only healthy and beneficial to both parties, it challenges you to be more flexible, more attentive and therefore better at making more complex decisions. It’s the foundation for effective participative and collaborative working environments.
How do we start listening and empathising with our peers?
1. Put aside your viewpoint
When someone seems like they’re being “stubborn” or “unreasonable”, they’re most likely reacting to the information they have available to them. Take a moment to find out what that knowledge is before you share what you believe could fill the gaps and provide a compromise.
2. Give value to their views
When you see where they’re coming from, acknowledge it. Summarise it back to them for clarity. This doesn’t mean you must agree with them but you can still accept their opinion and why they’re holding onto it.
3. Check your attitude
Do you have to be right? Or, is coming together to find solutions and build strong relationships your priority? If it’s the former, you will probably struggle to learn and grow because you won’t open your mind. That leaves very little room for any real empathy.
4. Listen well
Pay attention to everything the speaker is saying – really notice their words, tone and body language. Ask yourself what seems most important to the speaker? What do they keep circling back to? What must they be feeling right now? Ask to know more and when you do respond, you will be able to effectively address their concerns as well as express yours in context.
5. Get to know what they would do
When in doubt, ask what the other person would do ideally. It’s simple and direct and it makes the conversation solution focused. There’s not much to lose from doing this as you don’t get brownie points for figuring stuff out alone. In fact, most places prize collaborative or team-oriented people.
“Empathy is about standing in someone else’s shoes, feeling with his or her heart, seeing with his or her eyes. Not only is empathy hard to outsource and automate, but it makes the world a better place.”
–Daniel H. Pink, NYT bestseller.
It’s been my experience and my personal observation that empathy is the most important skill to work on if you really do want to be the best friend, colleague, or family member you can be and meaningfully contribute to the people around you.
So, give it a try, start listening and be curious. You never know how much you’ll learn from someone today.