Cultivating Empathy

In this animated short, Dr. Brené Brown talks about the difference between sympathy and empathy.

Brené Brown has already made a big impact on me (I reviewed The Gifts of Imperfection here, and Daring Greatly was also amazing), but I like the format of the video — focusing on just one idea.

While watching the video, I thought first of my own personal support network, and how lucky I am to have people who will climb down into the “empathy hole” with me when I am down. My friends and family are so willing to just let me feel what I feel without judgement or advice.

My second thought was about the entrepreneurial community that I have experienced here in Portland. Erika and I have been so lucky to meet many great advisors who have taught us so much. I’ve always felt though, that we could have stronger relationships with fellow young entrepreneurs and company owners.

It’s easy to put on a happy face and try to impress another company owner with how great things are going. It’s hard to turn to another entrepreneur (often one you’ve just recently met) and tell them what’s not going so well. Maybe fundraising has been difficult, maybe we just had a product failure, maybe our work relationships have been a bit strained — these are difficult things to share.

We are afraid of being the little fox in the video, deep in a vulnerable hole, while our new goat friend calls down to us sympathetically. We don’t want to be pitied, we want to be understood.

It’s hard to get down on someone else’s level. Problem-solving tendencies can come out in those of us who solve problems all day. When someone confides in me their emotional struggles, I immediately want to fix the issue — just out of habit. I want to make the problem feel smaller — either by being humorous (make the problem a joke) or rational (put the problem in perspective, i.e. “cheer up, it’s not that bad!”).

But as Brené points out, true empathy cannot begin with a statement at starts with “At least…”. Rarely can a response make something better — what makes something better is connection.

This short was a good wake up call for me to try to infuse the culture around me, both personally and professionally, with a little more daily vulnerability and conscious empathy.

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