Empathy comes before Authority

Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from their frame of reference; or in other words, the capacity to place oneself in another’s position. Oprah Winfrey once explained it this way, “The three things every human being wants most are to be seen, heard, and understood.” The way I approach branding and the way I approach life is very similar. Ask a lot of questions, listen to the answers, and try to empathize. You have to pause your positions or authority until you understand and the other person feels heard. You can not help or guide someone until you know where they have been and where they want to go.

Having grown up in Los Angeles, I have had the opportunity to experience almost every world culture at my doorstep. Never once did I think it was abnormal to invite a Black, Asian, and Hispanic friend over for dinner. However, as a white male, being naive isn’t an excuse for being passive. Empathy is the capacity to understand, so the more you can seek to understand, the better you can identify with someone or something, like a cause.

I have never endured slavery, but I have taken the time to visit a plantation and held the chains that once bound them. I’ve never experience genocide, but I have visited an unmarked mass grave and heard the stories of devastation. I have never been homeless, but I have stayed in a shelter to comprehend the feeling of owning nothing. I have never been arrested or had a knee on my back, but I did sit and listen to my friend’s own experience with racism and injustice as he was arrested on the way to my house for looking suspicious. People want to be seen, heard, and understood so it is our part to put ourselves in a position to see, hear, and understand where others are coming from or what they’re experiencing. You need to seek empathy.

Now, here is the second big challenge. I could be the leading expert with full understanding, but every client or friend is different. They have a separate script in life and still want to be seen and heard. So the next step is humility. C.S. Lewis once said, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.” Humility comes from the Latin word humilis, which literally means low. Lowering yourself, so others can shine. In business, this means taking the role of the guide. You are not there to win the day, but if you help your client become the hero you can both succeed. In society, this allows us to think about others instead of being self-focused. It takes away superiority and allows others to enter as equals.  

As a result, through empathy, you earn permission, trust, and authority to help. Empathy helps a person answer the question, “Can I trust this person?” Then, once you earn that trust, demonstrating competence helps people answer the question, “Can I respect this person?” In business and in life, trust and respect are powerful elements in any relationship. As a guide, you now have permission to help layout a plan to create clarity and vision. This gives someone a path of hope, that might lead to the resolution of their troubles. Obviously, this is the start of the journey, so I challenge you to get out and seek understanding for yourself. We can all practice a little more empathy in our lives.

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