Wikipedia describes Empathy as the capability to share and understand another’s emotions and feelings, and is characterized as the ability to “put oneself into another’s shoes”.
This connection to others is both an honorable and natural feeling, but can also often drive us to do something that, is the completely wrong thing to do. Since joining the Fire Service I’ve seen many situations where peoples empathy for another has not only caused them to be unable to render help, but on occasions has actually put everyone in danger.
In a blog post the other day Seth Godin talked about empathy and asked marketers to not assume they know how people are feeling emotionally. His logic was that unless you had had the same experience, how could you know how a person was feeling and that it was therefore dangerous to pretend you do.
I agree with this, but in a stressful, high anxiety situation, peoples imagination and emotions can run away on them if the environment is not managed and if people do not control their own state. As we grow, we develop a strong natural empathetic response. It’s that feeling that makes us want to rush over and help someone we see struggling, or aid someone in pain.
The problem is, if we get caught up in that emotion – we actually lose the ability to help.
What I’ve discovered, partly through training and partly through observation is that there is a space (a period of time) between the stimulus (what happened) and your response to it. For some people that time doesn’t seem to exist and they react so quickly, so the challenge is to take a deep breath and take as long as needed to respond appropriately.
‘Feel’ but don’t get caught up
It’s important to have empathy and show compassion, but you can’t get caught up in the emotion of the situation. You help best when you are totally present and strong.
What’s your role
Be clear, “what’s my role in this situation”, and respond appropriately. At the scene of a car accident it would be a natural instinct to want to help a crying child first and remove them from the situation and give comfort. But to remain effective we must control those feelings, and do what is right. To solve an emotional situation effectively there should be a process that works best
The same situation we see on the Fire Ground exist in normal life.
To be effective in our jobs, our businesses, and our families, we need to learn to have empathy without over reaction, this allows us to assess and then act in the most effective manner. If not the situation becomes overwhelming and we lose both our clarity of thought and the creativity required to solve the problem at hand.
Empathy can become an addiction
It feels good to be connected emotionally to people, but it is not always best to be like that. Build a strong emotional muscle to help guide your response as It’s a lot easier to assess and react to a situation by looking in ‘at it’ rather than when you are ‘too close’.
In business we’re required to make big decisions in stressful environments, think strategically under pressure and set an example for our employees. Don’t go running into any burning building without taking a minute to control your frame of mind.