An interviewer was once giving a lecture on the art of the the Q&A. He shared question strategies, tips and techniques he had carefully collected over the years. The overarching advice he offered to the intently listening crowd was empathy. That’s it – that’s all it takes to be a good interviewer. Interviewers are there to be the brush that asks the questions resulting in a beautiful self-portrait. The moment you take off your shoes and try theirs on for size, you will know what questions to ask that will take the discussion straight to the heart of the matter. He then went on to stress that empathy is as essential in everyday life as it is to the professional interviewer. Most people are hoping for the opportunity to be truthful about who they are and how they became that way.
Right now you are asking yourself… “when was the last time I was empathetic?” But to answer that question you might first need a refresher course on what empathy is exactly. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines empathy as the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner – what a mouth full!
In other words, empathy is walking a mile in someone else’s shoes, experiencing the joys and sorrows of their life without actually having to live it. American actress Meryl Streep says this, “The great gift of human beings is that we have the power of empathy.” However, this gift is only enjoyable when used. Often times we see the awful enemy of empathy – egocentricity. As humans, we are inherently drawn to selfishness, narcissism and apathy. Inflated self-esteem leads to a sense of superiority and a feeling of entitlement. This may seem a little harsh, but just look at little children. Yes, they provide us with perfect examples of emotions like pure trust and blind love. However, they too offer daily examples of selfishness and self-gain. Just watch them the next time one toy is given to two or more children.
Empathy has to be encouraged in young children and fostered all the way through adulthood. Specifically in entertainment, performance centered towns like Nashville – people begin to be all about themselves. You know – the shameless self-promoters. To a point, we all have to be our own advocates. But after that same point, there is the danger of becoming self-centered trumpets with blinders, unable to see anyone or anything around us but ourselves! This type of person shows up to events around town just to be seen and heard. You might go far without empathy, but you will be alone. Empathy is the key to quality networking and the building of honest, true relationships.
When you approach networking with empathy in mind, you begin to see life through the other person’s eyes. Asking sincere questions might take people by surprise. Everyone has a rehearsed, public infomercial persona ready to give predetermined shallow answers to general conversational questions. When you are confronted by someone actually trying to get to know you, the meaningful questions throw you off and you don’t know what hit you. This act of “throwing off” makes people more present in the moment and sincerity abounds.
Take this turtle picture to heart. Although this analogy seems a little out of left field and obvious – sometimes we aren’t as quick to be empathetic with each other as we would be in this scenario and that is the tragedy.
“The most valuable things in life are not measured in monetary terms [or fame]. The really important things are not houses and lands, stocks and bonds, automobiles and real state, but friendships, trust, confidence, empathy, mercy, love and faith,” Bertrand Russell. Next time you are out with friends, painfully waiting for the conversation to be about you – take some time to practice empathy. Contentment and joy will come when you stop to experience the emotions and stories of others. If you pause your agenda just long enough, you might be surprised what you learn when you listen to the soulful journey of another.