This series of blogs are based on the framework for developing resilience as described by Brooks and Goldstein in their book “The Power of Resilience”. Although I am using their framework for discussion I am introducing my own perspective and spin to their ideas.
This week I am exploring the key role empathy plays in our ability to develop resilience. This is our ability to truly put ourselves into the shoes of another person. We do not have to agree with them, this is about understanding their viewpoint.
This emphasis on empathy mirrors my own view on self-esteem, people with a healthy level of self-esteem value themselves and they value others. When we only value our selves there is a risk that narcissism tendencies could develop.
According to Brooks and Goldstein empathy is a key component of resilience too in that when we ask questions about the person’s perspective we increase the likelihood of positive relationships. Unsurprisingly, people with high resilience tend to have good relationships and social networks.
Gaining empathy for people who share our values and opinions is easy, challenge comes when we are faced with people with very different mindsets and values to ourselves.
Over the years I have worked with a lot of social workers involved in “Children’s Services”. These amazing professionals are often dealing with very disturbing situations and trying to take action that is in the best interests of the child. The best social workers have developed the ability to gain empathy for adults and parents who are behaving in unacceptable ways.
This often involves parents who are in some way creating a damaging environment for their children.
Why do the social workers need empathy for such people you might ask?
Well in some circumstances of course the best thing to do is remove the child from the environment. There are many cases, however, where if it is possible to facilitate change in the parent the child’s interests are best served by supporting them at home.
This can be so challenging and for many too much however by finding a way to understand what might be motivating such a parent the child can be helped.
I mention this rather tough example because I often work with people who claim an inability to gain empathy with someone over comparatively trivial issues. Sometimes we need to a reality check to allow us to step back and see the world from someone else’s perspective.
Developing empathy allows us to resolve conflict effectively and develop tolerance for others differing views. It can be very stressful when we take positions over issues and refuse to see any other possibility.
NLP has a simple exercise that helps develop this insight into the motivations of others and thus develop empathy. This technique is called perceptual positions and is very straight forward. I will give an overview of the simplified version here.
We first need to identify a number of perspectives to explore the issue from. The first perspective is called “first position” and is our own viewpoint. Most people are already good at this and may have spent a lot of time exploring an issue from their own perspective. We need to step away from this position.
When coaching people with this technique I find third position the most useful one to do next. This involves stepping into the role of the observer, this can be done from a number of levels;
- Meta position (NLP) or witness consciousness – watching yourself and observing yourself and others in a detached or dissociated way.
- Bystander (TA) – observing as if you were an uninvolved person witnessing the situation.
- Universal – going as big picture as possible and noticing all the other factors that may not have been obvious up close.
The above views allows us to dissociate from our own position enough to truly step into the other persons shoes and consider their perspective. By taking on the physiology of this person we can increase our connection to this.
We could speculate that we may be more likely to be triggering “mirror neurons” by doing this. Mirror neurons are a fairly new area of research (around ten years) and we have much to learn yet. It is possible that some people naturally have more mirror neurons than others increasing their natural ability to have empathy.
Little research exists to support the idea that we can increase our number of mirror neurons by personal development however I do wonder if that is possible and if by consciously taking time out to actively become more empathetic will our mirror neurons increase.
So returning to resilience, when we have empathy for others we improve our communication and our ability to influence others. We are more likely to resolve difference and manage difficult situations successfully. All of this will lower the levels of stress we will experience and thus increase our resilience.
As I write all this I am reminded of Steven Covey’s “7 Habits of Highly Successful People” and the habit:
“Seek first to understand and then be understood.”
The first step is becoming mindful of our need for empathy, noticing when we are failing to explore an others perspective and then to take action to gain that empathy.
Both NLP and Transactional Analysis provide some excellent tools to help develop empathy for others. If you would like to join me on some workshops to do just that check out our upcoming events it will be great to see you soon.