Having empathy for other people is a true art. Some research says that you are either born with it or you are not. I can say that I was not born with it and I did not have it until my early 30s. I grew up in the hospitality industry. I watched my parents work evenings and holidays throughout my life. So it was very natural for me to not have empathy when I entered the restaurant industry and employees would ask for holidays off to spend with their families. I continued the family cycle of working long hours and not spending holidays with my family and fully dedicated to my career. It wasn’t until I had what I call, “Life Challenges” come up when I owned my event planning business that I began to shift and have empathy for others. I lost my grandparents and father in a 2 year time frame along with experiencing a major medical challenge and a divorce. It was then that I started to look at people differently. When I saw someone acting out, whether it was saying mean words to others or yelling, I started to wonder, what was going on in their life? All I could think was that they were having probably one of the worst days of their lives. I knew what that felt like to be brought to your knees with grief and wonder if I was going to be able to get through the pain and anger.
This feeling was empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Keeping in mind it wasn’t sympathy, feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune. The two are very different and sympathy does not have the same impact as empathy when working with people. From my experience with empathy, I know that it can be learned through life challenges. Yet, what if you are someone who doesn’t have empathy and your life has been very easy, without any life challenges? It can be learned if someone wants to grow their personal skills. Maybe they see there is more to life and they want to be better within themselves and for their family. If this is the case and they have the desire, they can learn empathy. If you are one of these people, I recommend paying attention each time you have negative thoughts about people and stopping yourself during those negative thoughts. Stop and ask yourself, is this person having the worse day of their life? Think about what that must feel like. Keeping in mind that we are all different and one person’s worst day might be having their car break down whereas another person’s worst day might be being told they have cancer with one year to live and they don’t know how they are going to tell their husband and two toddlers. Feel the empathy for the other person in your heart. This is an art and it takes practice and discipline.
According to Roman Krznaric as outlined in his article “Six Habits of Highly Empathic People,” we can cultivate empathy throughout our lives and use it as a radical force for social transformation.
Habit 1: Cultivate Curiosity about Strangers
Curiosity expands our empathy when we talk to people outside our usual social circle, encountering lives and worldviews very different from our own.
Habit 2: Challenge Prejudices and Discover Commonalities
Challenge your own preconceptions and prejudices by searching for what you share with people rather than what divides you.
Habit 3: Try Another Person’s Life
Expand your empathy by gaining direct experience of other people’s lives, putting into practice the Native American proverb, “Walk a mile in another man’s moccasins before you criticize him.”
Habit 4: Listen Hard-and Open Up
“It is essential to be present to what’s really going on within-to the unique feelings and needs a person is experiencing in that moment,” according to Marshall Rosenbergy, psychologist and founder of Non-Violent Communication. Then followed by making yourself vulnerable by removing your masks and revealing your feelings to someone. This is vital for creating a strong empathic bond.
Habit 5: Inspire Mass Action and Social Change
Empathy happens at the level of individuals yet empathy can also be a mass phenomenon that brings about fundamental social change.
Habit 6: Develop an Ambitious Imagination
Empathize with people whose beliefs we don’t share or who may be “enemies” in some way.
As hospitality industry leaders, we have the ability to have a positive impact on many people that we encounter. I encourage you to practice the art of empathy for your own well-being and to spread positivity out into our world.