Leading with Empathy

About a year ago I noticed that my best friend was replying to my texts messages a bit differently. It was subtle, but powerful. She was leading with empathy.

My BFF Jonobie and I text each other all kinds of things all the time. Something that made us think of the other person, a funny pic that we can’t stop laughing about, venting about a crappy day, sharing some exciting news, etc. In the latter two, the thing she and I need most often is someone to hear, acknowledge, and echo what we’re feeling. Not to attempt to solve the problem, or to offer advice, but to empathize with us.

In general I think we’ve always done a decent job of empathizing with one another, but it was often implicit rather than explicit. About a year ago I noticed that many times her response was more direct. For instance:

Me: Holy cow, I was just given an important high-profile project and now have an important deadline due in less than 6 weeks.

Her: That sounds both exciting and stressful!

Or also:

Me: Chest X-Rays are back and I do not have pneumonia! Woohoo!

Her: Yayyay!!! I’m super glad that you don’t have pneumonia!!!

In both cases she leads the response with empathy by expressing that she understand how I feel and shares with me in that feeling. Contrast that with other perfectly reasonable responses:

Me: Holy cow, I was just given an important high-profile project and now have an important deadline due in less than 6 weeks.

Them: Boo work!

And:

Me: Chest X-Rays are back and I do not have pneumonia! Woohoo!

Them: <thumbsup>

There’s nothing inherently wrong with these, but they are missing that level of empathy that conveys the sender is there, present, and sharing in your feelings with you — all things that the first set (the ones she actually sent) provided.

At some point I noticed what she was doing, how awesome it was, and worked to integrate that into my texts with other people too. I want to be present for my friends, to convey to them that they are important to me, that I am here to hold space for them.

But what if you don’t know how the other person is feeling after receiving a wall of text? How are we to lead with empathy? She’s modeled that for me too by simply asking, eg:

Me: Holy cow, I was just given an important high-profile project and now have an important deadline due in less than 6 weeks.

Her: Oh my! How are you feeling about that?

or even:

Me: Holy cow, I was just given an important high-profile project and now have an important deadline due in less than 6 weeks.

Her: Woah! That sounds as if it could be either exciting or frustrating!

Me: Actually, I’m excited but stressed out.

For me, texting with empathy was a gateway to me being more empathetic in my in-person interactions too. A few weeks ago Daniel commented that I’ve been more empathetic towards him in our conversations and he’s really appreciated it.

And hearing that I’m better connecting with the person that I love makes me incredibly happy.