THE BLOG

Why Empathy Is Key to Life and Work

06/30/2015 04:03 pm ET | Updated Jun 30, 2016
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Throughout our lives, people come in and out. They come to teach us by adding to our lives or making a mess in our lives. Society conditions us that there are rules of how we should act and play. Don't you know what's cool and uncool? Acceptance and love should be the norm and it does not prepare us for when some people disappoint us deeply, especially ones that we trusted.

What I personally love about life is that every person is an individual, different and unique. Our society shies away from the people who are different and considered "misfits" and puts them in boxes with labels that say they are the "crazies." Isn't that what Steve Jobs was labeled when he was alive? And now that he is no longer on earth, he is seen as a hero being quoted almost every day in some form or another.

And here is the secret that Seth Godin understands and talks about and so does John Hagel, the opportunities for us today in life and business are on the edge. Most people have not received the bulletin that the bell curve is dead.

Thanks to technology our society is changing and so is business. We no longer need to mold every human being into a perfect cookie and the same applies to organizations. We are at a point of transformation as a result of technology. The gift of technology is that we are now visible. And while that scares senior management, because their role as the information sources is shifting to one of a community builder, it is the new reality that is happening whether they like it or not. It's no longer a matter of if it would happen, but that it is happening.

And it is very scary for people who go to a self-help book to discover the seven secrets of success and how they should be living their lives. They want to know what the cool clothes are too wear and where they should vacation because it's trendy. Easy access to information has moved us to live in a global world. Often, we hear of events in far away lands faster than the traditional news media can report. CNN today reports on what is happening on Twitter.

There are also people who hide behind technology. That is part of the human condition, But what it is bringing about is a fundamental shift of the many types of people out there who are unique and individual. And that's ok. Today many prefer to belong to their community or tribe and no longer have to "fit in" to society's conditioning of how their lives are supposed to be. This is the fundamental discourse we are witnessing between the generations at home and especially at work. The younger generation is rejecting how it is "supposed to be" to create what they want it to be. Their world was smaller and more connected as they have always had technology.I'll never forget running a workshop at Usher's New Look Foundation and many of the participants connected with me on Facebook and were amazed that we had common connections in Kenya. They tend to see their lives more as a blank canvass. They want to show up as who they are and it is annoying to many in the older generations who have been conditioned to be a certain way, with a certain path and formula to follow; and who may be living someone else's "best practice."

The Big Shift

The big shift that is happening in all generations is a massive wake-up call to what is possible. I like to call it a shift from how we have been conditioned to be to a pure "unconditioning." There is a reason why this word appears unfamiliar and I am being told it's a spelling error. Some of us, regardless of our age, are now also rejecting how life is supposed to be to create the life we want. We are still viewed at the edge but we don't really care. We want to own our lives and be able to be the artists with our own paint colors and we don't see ourselves as brave or courageous as we are being labeled but at peace with who we are becoming. We don't care if we are labeled misfits or crazies because we know who we are. And more importantly, we are focused on how we can help others with compassion and understanding, when they are ready. It can be a very lonely and misunderstood place but we are pioneers. And we know it's not easy, because we are unconditioning, but what we feel it needs to be for us in our own individual way. We don't believe in best practices. We seem them as a distraction.

Why Empathy is Key

We live in a world where humans judge each other every second. Many can only relate to their own path of how people should show up. Some action of another person can trigger something deep inside of them that they then reflect back on themselves without seeing the person right in front of them. Our society recognizes the mind and the intellect more than our hearts and our feelings. Our human communication is broken. It happens every day in organizations where we over-complicate basic information we need to share. We are so busy presenting our perfect mission and vision statements that we have lost sight of the shared purpose that allows people to understand how they can make a contribution at work. And pure communication becomes even messier in our personal relationships.

The irony is that we then take it into social networks by having superficial applications of "likes," for example, which are meaningless. Apart from advertising, what is a like worth? Does it matter if you are more liked than someone else?

What we are missing is conversations with pure empathy. Everyone wants to help us solve our issue or what they perceive it to be, but they don't always take the time to deeply listen and understand it. They go back to the manual and think they know the answer without taking the time to listen. And that causes further miscommunication because they apply diagnoses that don't really apply. What happens is that everyone is then frustrated. They are frustrated that the individual can't see what is in front of them and the individual is frustrated that they want to label them and have not listened.

The 21st century is about the individual who wants to be on the edge and not pretend that there is a bell curve that they need to fit into. It's an opportunity for an increasing number of people to be creators and makers of their lives, which includes what they do at work. Organizations that will understand this shift will realize that work-life balance is a 20th century myth based on the notion that we were two separate people: professional and personal. In the 21st century, an increasing number of people want to show up as themselves and lifework. In the 20th century, we asked the question: "What would you do if you had six months to live?" This is a scarcity question. In the 21st century, we can ask: "What would happen if we had 100+ years to live?" This is an abundance question that recognizes that we live in opportunity and possibility.

My request is that we take more time to see the person in front of us as it will help us understand ourselves, our community and our customers better. Don't get stuck in old frames of reference that no longer serve you. Take the time to listen and learn. We may all learn something important not just about the other person but ourselves. It's not always pretty but why does it need to be? Just like 120 crayon colors, the human being comes with a range of emotions that serve a purpose that only the creator understands.