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Empathy on empty

I saw six people huddled on the sidewalk in front of me; through their legs I saw what looked like a body on the ground.

I rushed over and saw a man with a bloody gash on his head; he appeared to be unconscious. I checked him out using my Boy Scout First-Aid training. His clothes were filthy and tattered, and he smelled bad, but a quick examination showed that his wound was not very deep.

I was a 19-year-old college kid, and had just moved into my first apartment. “What happened? I asked the crowd.

“He’s a drunk; I’m calling the police!” responded one.

I couldn’t believe the callous response. “This man is hurt,” I cried. He doesn’t need the police – he needs help!”

I roused the man and got him to his feet. “Come on, mister, let me take you home.”

He grunted and pointed down the block. I took his arm and we started walking. I was clueless that my ward might be homeless.

At each intersection, I asked him which way to go, and he pointed straight ahead. Then he stopped, and to my shock, while I was holding him up, he unzipped his fly and began urinating in the middle of the road. At that moment, I was glad that none of my neighbours knew me yet.

We walked another block. The street ended at a park and suddenly, he broke free from my grasp and disappeared into the trees. I stood there staring after him, feeling stupid.

A few years later, I moved to New York City. It was my second week in the Big Apple when I stopped my car at a red light. A man holding a gas can walked up to my window and said, “I live out on Long Island and ran out of gas, but I left my wallet at the house.” He held the can up expectantly and said, “A gallon will get me home.”

I was very intimidated by the size of New York; I knew I would hate to be stuck there without my wallet. I handed him two dollars. Two days later, I pulled up to a red light at a different intersection – the same man came up to me with the same story. I was furious.

After experiencing a few more incidents like these, my empathy was running on empty. As I became successful professionally, I paid it forward with generous donations and volunteer work. But empathy? Understanding people’s feelings? There just didn’t seem to be a role for it in my life.

Then one day, I needed a little myself. My relationship was falling apart. I talked to my girl-friend in the hope for some understanding, but none was forthcoming. I was also too caught up in my own issues to have any feelings for hers. The relationship ended, but it made me determined to learn how to be more empathaticic in the future.

Just like me, people are demanding that they are offered compassion, but take no time to understand the viewpoint of others.

The more I learn about it, however, it seems that the opposite would be true, because the benefits of empathy are enormous. For one, it is a great way to motivate people – not just in our personal lives – but in business as well.

California-based graphic designer Moira Hill says, “Being empathetic absolutely helps in business because it allows you to see things from your customer’s perspective and adjust your service and how you provide them accordingly. Empathy increases kindness in the world. It takes little time, and a small action can have ripple effects.”

Hillary Nash is a top seller of cancer insurance policies for AFLAC. She attributes her success to sharing her own story of how her family was devastated by her father’s cancer.
“I hear from clients often about how they were touched that I would share something so personal.”

Psychotherapist and author of The Self-Aware Parent, Dr. Fran Walfish, enjoys repeat business and referrals because she tells patients some of her own personal struggles. “I share a flaw of my own to help the patient put into perspective their own challenges and to realize that even the doctor whom they idealize and hold in high regard has problems, too.”

Dr. Joseph Shrand, an instructor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, says that good business is based on relationships, and that respect is the first step you take in having empathy for someone.
He makes this observation: “When is the last time you got angry at a person who was treating you with respect? You don’t!”

Executive coach, Dr. Karissa Thacker, sees it as a business tool. “Nice guys can finish first, if they have an enlightened, practical understanding of empathy.”

Does your empathy need a fill up?

– Robert Wilson

• Robert Wilson is an author, humorist and innovation consultant. He is also the author of the children’s book, The Annoying Ghost Kid. For info, visit www.jumpstartyourmeeting.com.

Posted: Jan 31, 2013

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