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You Know About Empathy But Do You Really Apply It?

You Know About Empathy But Do You Really Apply It?

I had the habit of thinking that my style of doing things was the best. In recent years, I have realized how two people can have opinions which are polar opposites and still be right in their own way.

When someone else had a different style or a contradicting opinion, I felt the need to prove myself right with facts and figures. For example, I am an outright non-vegetarian. I would consider vegetarians foolish for staying away from delicious food. I have made fun of countless people by asking them how can they survive on shoots and leaves.

I have not only been a part but also encountered other people behave just like I did.

The meat lovers would argue about the importance of proteins. Our rival group would present facts about how a vegan diet serves the body better. Nobody would change their belief though. The only result would be a needless debate which helped nobody.

Over time I have realized the stupidity of trying to push my own beliefs as right. When I started looking at other’s perspectives with an open mind without trying to find fault in it, I started realizing why I felt the need to do that earlier. I now understand the importance of different perspectives.

Though I knew about the importance of empathy for a long time, understanding the viewpoint of others was no easy task. On paper, empathy seems like a simple concept of understanding what the other person is feeling. In real life, when the other person disagrees with you, your brain prefers a debate or a fight instead of applying empathy.

Importance of empathy and perspectives

Why do we disagree with people?

1. The necessity to seem right

Necessity to seem right

As human beings, no one likes to lose or be proven wrong. While you can justify such behavior in a contest or a sporting event, you might not realize how such a mindset also seeps into your day to day activity.

When someone brings up a fact or an argument that goes against your belief, you jump into challenging the person with a counter-argument. Winning provides a dopamine rush or a pleasure chemical that makes you feel better. Therefore, you try to win every debate possible simply for the sake of winning.

2. The ego of losing

The ego of losing

When somebody disagrees with you, your ego does not like it. Your ego likes to make you feel superior and when another person questions your belief or opinion, your self-pride takes a beating. If you do not present an argument, a fact or a reason why your belief seems better, you consider yourself inferior.

Your quest for coming across as a cut above the rest of the world unconsciously causes you to prove your opinion right.

3. The discomfort associated with change

Your brain prefers equilibrium, called homeostasis. Any change, positive or negative, acts as a disruption of equilibrium. As a result, your brain fights the idea of any change, which includes changing your opinion too.

If you believe saving most of your income is the right thing to do, your brain will not accept another person’s lifestyle of enjoying the present by spending money. Instead, it prefers to debate why saving money helps in the long run. Whenever someone challenges your opinion, you not only try to convince the other person but also fight hard to keep your belief unshaken.

Example Scenarios where people fail to understand the opinion of others

1. Taking one side

Taking a side

Many beliefs have two groups – the believers and the non-believers. For example:

  • the atheists vs the god-fearing
  • the introverts vs the extroverts
  • the people who live to travel vs those who focus on career growth

Atheists never understand why people believe in God when science proves otherwise. A believer will ask an atheist to explain the reason behind the big bang. An atheist wants to shake the faith of the believer and the devout person wants to sway the skeptic into believing in God.

The extroverts try to make their introvert friends socialize and speak more. They fail to decipher how anyone can enjoy an entire weekend at home. Introverts wonder how someone can go out for breakfast, lunch, and dinner with different groups without draining themselves out.

I am a career focused guy myself. For years I was astonished to see people spend 15 days on a vacation. I used to wonder, “What pleasure does someone get by trekking up a mountain undergoing such discomfort?” I had no idea that an avid traveler thought, “How can a person work for so many hours and go through such stress every day?”

I have now realized trekkers do not consider climbing as a discomfort just like I do not find long working hours stressful.

2. Fan following

Fan followers

You have your favorites you cheer for. Chances are you will remain a loyal fan to them for life. It could be a sports team, a political party or a celebrity for example.

Fans of Donald Trump hate the logic of the supporters of Hilary Clinton and vice versa. The fans of Barcelona cannot tolerate the gameplay or tactics of Real Madrid. Followers of a sports team tend to behave like drunk men high on adrenaline even without the alcohol.

Fans love to blindly criticize the ploy of their opponents and laud the strategies of their own. When it comes to supporting their team, followers throw facts and logic far out of the window. The outcome bias serves as proof for their beliefs.

3. Empathy in business:

I have met many entrepreneurs and even partnered with some who had a different style. I have been judgmental about the methods followed by other businessmen and even considered them outright foolish.

Likewise, entrepreneurs have a habit of considering their style as the blueprint for success. Different businessmen have different opinions on hiring, marketing, go to market and growth strategies. Though such styles have no proof of guaranteeing victory, people tend to belittle the approach used by another person.

4. Understanding in relationships:

Most couples quarrel like two young siblings fighting over the last candy. The kids learn to behave with age, but the husband and wife may not. If someone gathered the data behind the reason why partners fight, the graph would look like below.

Why couples fight

Most fights occur because partners assume being in love implies both people should have the same point of view on every topic.

Women consider spending on makeup as a necessity while men splurge on watching a sports event live. Women hate it when the husband throws his shirts on the bed while men hate it when the wife leaves the car tire dirty.

Empathy in relationships

When the husband does not talk much, the wife assumes he is having an extramarital affair when all he had was a stressful week. When the wife texts and smiles, the husband assumes she is getting cozy with a male colleague while all she was doing was gossiping with her lady friend.

If all couples in the world realized neither will women think like men nor will men behave like women, the world would turn into a happier place within a snap of fingers.

5. Diversity of coworkers

Diversity in a group

Every organization has a mixture of different kinds of people. The higher the number of employees, the more contrasting the personalities are. Unknown gangs form out of thin air who think different and fail to understand the perspectives of others. For example:

  • Men and women
  • The freshers and the experienced
  • The people who leave on time and those who stay back late
  • The risk-takers and the risk-averse
  • The experimenters and the by the book employees

Many such segregations exist and they may vary in your organization. If the culture of an organization welcomes and encourages a mixed bag of people, ideas flow and results flourish. But when people start contradicting the approach of others, things turn toxic.

The risk takers consider the other group as boring while the risk-averse consider their opposites as too volatile. The experimenters wonder why can’t everyone think of creative ideas like they do, while the employees who go by the book cannot fathom how big companies can run without detailed documents and processes. Those who work long hours look at people who leave on time as lazy while the people who go by the clock assume the people who stay late have no life.

Different styles suit different needs and it is incorrect to consider your style as the perfect way of doing things. One of the primary role in leadership in such organizations is to foster a culture where people can work as a team amidst their differences.

How failing to understand the perspective of others affects you?

On the surface, the need to understand other people seems insignificant. You might even shrug it off thinking it hardly makes any difference. But, it does and not just a little. Being empathetic about the feelings, beliefs, and opinions of others helps you look at the world in a different light. Compare the difference to watching the TV in Blu-Ray. The context is the same but you can view the picture with a lot more detail.

Here is what happens when you fail to look at things from a different perspective:

1. Siloed thinking

When you think you are right, you only think from your angle. Your thoughts revolve around how to prove your point and how to counter the argument to make your opinion superior. This can cause you to refute facts and even contradict data that would have helped you.

Society has people with different thoughts and ideologies. When everyone sticks to their own, all we will have is difference of opinion. For more details on how humans stick to their belief, read the article on confirmation bias.

2. Unnecessary arguments

Unnecessary arguments

When two people get into a discussion to prove themselves right, the conversation turns into a verbal assault sooner or later. At that point, both of them focus more on winning than making the exchange fruitful.

Arguing to prove your point is unnecessary in most cases. Being hell-bent on winning the conversation is like fighting with a loved one over a trivial issue. Sure, you might have stated better facts and made a better impact but what good comes out of it if both of you go to sleep angry with each other?

Winning an unnecessary argument is like winning a battle but losing the war.

3. Loss of opportunity to learn

Learning from each other

Bring any two people in a room and both will have something to learn from each other, guaranteed. One of them could be Elon Musk while the other could be a person whom the society considers a failure, but each person will have knowledge on some topic which the other doesn’t.

Every conversation you have provides you an opportunity to improve yourself. If you have the humility to examine the perspective of the other person with an open mind, you can tap into the benefits of different viewpoints.

You do not have to agree with the other person but at least you can make an effort to understand where the other person is coming from.

4. Less co-operation

Less co-operation

If you turn down an opinion, the other person will brush off your action the first time. Do it again and the person will sense a tinge of resentment. Repeat the same enough number of times and you will come across as a person who has the habit of contradicting opinions.

Over time, people cooperate with you lesser because human beings reciprocate what they receive. Not everyone might do it. Not always will such behavior be intentional. But the world around you will look at you as someone whom they are not very keen to help.

5. Hiding their opinion

Hiding their opinion

When you build a routine of challenging the point of view of others, people refrain from expressing their viewpoint due to the fear of a backlash. This can lead to people keeping their thoughts to themselves which otherwise would have added valuable input to the discussion.

The behavior can have drastic consequences if a person in authority often proves other people wrong unintentionally. Such actions have caused tragedies such as the Avianca 52 Flight disaster which killed 73 passengers and the crash of the space shuttle Challenger which killed all 7 crew members. Read more about how people hiding their opinion led to such catastrophes.

An exercise to find out how much you contradict

You might assume you do not contradict the opinion of others. To find how often you do, try this exercise. On any given day, count the number of sentences you start with the words – no, but, however. When you use these words to begin a sentence, it indicates you disagree with the other person in some shape or form. You might have a diplomatic way to put across your message but you are still opposing the belief of another person.

When I tried the exercise the first time, I was so shell shocked to reach a total of over 35 by evening that I stopped counting that day. To top it, I always considered myself an approachable person. Since then my tally now comes to single digits but I slip into the behavior of contradicting people quite often.

This activity was a part of the book What Got You Here Won’t Get You There by Marshall Goldsmith.


Empathy is a topic everyone speaks about and advocates but most people fail to apply it in real life. I am a culprit myself. Speaking about understanding another person seems easy but applying empathy in every conversation is no easy feat.

You do not have to agree with every single opinion thrown at you and become a doormat for people to trample upon. But knowing when you must challenge an opinion and when you must agree to disagree is an art that comes with experience and practice. I am far from achieving it and working towards getting better at it.

When you put in a conscious effort to understand what the other person is saying before agreeing or disagreeing, you build better relationships, get into fewer arguments, develop better rapport and facilitate better communication which takes everyone a step forward in life.

Live and let live.

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