The Power of Active Empathy

In a society where even trivial issues can ignite divisive debates, and friendly conversations can quickly switch into arguments, the lack of empathy and understanding becomes glaringly evident. In an age marked by increasing polarization and disconnection, the need for leaders who can skillfully navigate differences and find common ground has never been more important.

These “uncommon sense” leaders embrace Both/And thinking in an Either/Or world. They have the rare ability to find authentic connections with individuals whose perspectives and beliefs are different from their own. They set themselves apart by constructing bridges of connection instead of contributing to the walls of separation.

Empathy, the ability to understand another’s perspective, is essential for meaningful connections. Renowned empathy expert Lee Hartley Carter encourages leaders to go even further and develop something she refers to as “active empathy,” a rare form of the skill involving an understanding of others’ values and fears, even when we strongly disagree with them.

Whether discussing political differences, disagreeing on a potential workplace change, or engaging in debates on social issues, three common assumptions limit our ability to have active empathy with those who hold different viewpoints and biases:

  1. We assume they are less informed or intelligent than we are.
  2. We assume they care less about the situation than we do.
  3. We assume they are not as “good” as we are, morally or ethically.

To find common ground, we must challenge these assumptions by adopting a courageous new perspective:

  1. Assume that they possess wisdom to share with us.
  2. Assume that they care about the situation as much as or more than we do.
  3. Assume that they are every bit as “good” as we are.

Flipping the script on these assumptions unleashes the power of active empathy, allowing us toward becoming connectors. By doing so, we shed the blinders created by overemphasizing differences, opening our minds to recognize the good in all people and the wisdom within diverse opinions. Understanding doesn’t require agreement; and even in our differences, we will always share common values. It just might take a bit of extra work and courage on our part to discover them.

In a world yearning for connection and understanding, the ability to transform assumptions and actively empathize shines as a ray of hope. As uncommon sense leaders, we have the opportunity to challenge the status quo, stand out from the crowd, and contribute to a more connected and compassionate society—one empathetic interaction at a time.

DIY Team Building Activity:

Building Bridges Through "Active Empathy"

Based on the principles of the article, this activity aims to cultivate “active empathy” within your team, enhancing understanding and strengthening relationships despite differences in values, beliefs, or perspectives.

1. Article Reading:

  • Forward the “Active Empathy” article to your team members before your next meeting and ask everyone to pre-read the article.
  • During the meeting, as a large group, start by asking for reactions and insights they took from the article.

2. Small Group Discussions:

  • Divide the team into small groups of 2 or 3 members.
  • Each person should share an example from their life (at work or home) where they maintain a positive relationship with someone who holds significantly different views, values, or beliefs.
  • Participants should highlight 2 or 3 reasons they believe contribute to the success of these relationships.

3. Large Group Sharing:

  • Bring the small groups back together into one large group.
  • Without re-telling people’s stories, have each group share the reasons and characteristics that emerged during their discussions.
  • Using a flip chart, document these insights.

4. Reflection and Discussion:

  • Facilitate a conversation around the shared characteristics that sustain positive relationships despite differences.
  • Encourage team members to reflect on how well the team fosters “healthy tensions” and where improvements can be made.
  • Discuss practical strategies to continue promoting understanding, empathy, and positive relationships within the team.

Enjoy the journey of building bridges within your team!

Tim Arnold

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