Becoming human again: developing the ability to empathize

SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill. -- From the moment we’re born, we need human interaction and crave to be understood. It can have a profound effect upon our personal lives by making us feel empowered or conversely by making us feel powerless if those needs are neglected.

It also extends into our professional lives. In fact, many of the most successful companies in the world recognize this and invest in training employees on effective communication. It’s a hard-skill set that can ultimately determine a business’s success or failure.

I’ve always prided myself on being a good communicator. After all, I’m a photojournalist whose job is to bridge communication gaps and help us understand one another, right? So when I saw the opportunity to attend Air Mobility Command’s Communication Skills Training, I signed up. I thought I could perfect and master an already learned skill. What a sobering experience it was to find that I’m actually terrible at communicating. Luckily, I wasn’t alone.

One by one, I saw my classmates have the same epiphany. As we chipped away through the course that was unlike any I’d taken, we began to unravel. We began wearing our faults for everyone to see instead of burying them into our subconscious. As a class, we were becoming aware and wanted nothing more than to better ourselves. There was one man in particular, however, who made me brave enough to approach the course with an open mind.

In any other circumstance, he would be someone I would instinctively avoid. I’m non-confrontational. He’s abrasive and intimidating. I don’t like to make decisions until I have all the facts. He’s an “it’s my way or the highway” sort of guy. He stood well over six feet tall and had a bass-filled voice that I could feel vibrate off the walls. When I think of friction, I think of him. Well, I thought of him. But in an instant my opinion of him changed when he did what most of us couldn’t do.

He admitted that his failure to communicate has pushed him into solitude.

“I don’t have any friends,” he said, shaking his head. “I don’t. And my marriage is crumbling.”

Then, as his eyes turned red, he said if he died tomorrow, he couldn’t scrape up six people to carry his coffin.

That evening, I went home and reflected on my own shortcomings and the things that have kept me from being the person I want to be. I decided that if he was going to give this class an honest chance, I was going to also.

In the end, this is what I learned:


ON CONFRONTATION

When we think of confrontation, we associate it with negativity. It’s uncomfortable. It brings anxiety. But confrontation, if approached right, is just an opportunity. The key to successful conflict resolution, though, is not as much about confronting as it is listening, something we often forget.

There are only three logical, healthy moves when faced with a problem: truly accept the behavior (not false acceptance), adjust the circumstances, or ask for change.

When confronting someone, the important thing to remember is that we are ultimately asking them for their help. We are bringing them a problem, so it is their problem to solve – not ours. When we take ownership of a conversation, we prevent the other person from being empowered, and we are less likely to have our own needs met.

Bringing up an issue is uncomfortable for both sides, but by getting into that awkward box with them, we are saying, "You don’t have go at this alone. We can do this together."

 

ON LISTENING

We’ve all had it happen to us, and we’ve all done it to other people. While talking to someone about a concern, you realize that the other person isn’t truly listening. They’re just waiting for their opportunity to talk. Then, they tell you how they’d deal with it. They meet your problem with judgment or advice when all you wanted was to be heard. We know what we need to do. We just need a sounding board to work through the problem on our own.

When listening, silencing the mind is the hardest thing to do, but it is necessary if we want to be effective communicators. We need to silence our judgments, responses, and all of the distractions in our head and offer an empathetic ear.

Data suggests that 90 percent of our communication is non-verbal. The tone of our voice, eye contact, body language, and the message we speak must be harmonized in order to show sincerity.

As we’ve heard before, it’s not what we say—it’s how we say it. People will remember how you make them feel, and that is more important than what is said. So the next time an Airman comes up to my desk, I’m not going to tell them to wait one second while I finish an email as I have done in the past. I’m going to show them that they are my first priority and give them a listening ear.

 

ON EMPATHY

Often in life we speak to be heard but rarely to listen. We judge people based on their actions but we judge ourselves by our intentions. Imagine if instead we empathized with the intentions of others like we do our own. This is empathy. It doesn’t mean we have to agree. It doesn’t mean we have to fold. It just means we care enough to attempt to feel what others feel and see things the way they do. This is the key to communication, and this is what makes us human.

Even in regards to our enemies, understanding is key. Amaryllis Fox, a former undercover CIA agent, shared what she believed to be her most important takeaway from her experiences.

“I think the question we need to be asking as Americans examining our foreign policy is whether or not we're pouring kerosene on a candle,” Fox said. “The only real way to disarm your enemy is to listen to them. As long as your enemy is a subhuman psychopath that's going to attack you no matter what you do, this never ends. But if your enemy is a policy, however complicated, that we can work with.”

 

ON MOTIVATING

The truth is, I can’t motivate a single person. The only thing I can do is create an environment in which people motivate themselves.

There’s an old fisherman’s tale that I often turn to: if you put a single crab in a boiling pot without a lid, the crab will escape. If you put multiple crabs in a boiling pot, you won’t need to cover it all. The crabs will pull at each other, preventing any one of them from escaping.

If we are aware enough to see just how inefficient this is, then we can take steps to change this. We are motivated by our own needs and tend to pull to get ahead instead of offering a bent knee to help each other find solutions. We forget that we have the ability to help each other help ourselves.

What makes us human? What is the key to restoring our faith in humanity? The ability to empathize. Without it, there can be no progress. Without it, our life loses meaning.

The next time the course is highlighted in those public affairs bulletins, I encourage you to take a shot at it. Maybe it can help you, like me, become human again.