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How Do We Build The Foundations For True Empathy?

Steven N. Adjei is an award-winning British-Ghanaian best-selling author, poet, speaker, healthcare consultant, entrepreneur, and pharmacist.

 
Executive Contributor Steven N. Adjei

Just last month, I was privileged to have a conversation with well-renowned empathy expert Erin Thorp, best-selling author of the book Inside Out Empathy, and the host of the top-rated podcast Tactical Empathy.


Kofi Bonsu: The First Dance, 2022 Source: Kuenyehia Prize for Contemporary Art

Kofi Bonsu: The First Dance, 2022 Source: Kuenyehia Prize for Contemporary Art: https://www.kuenyehiaprize.org


I prepared as best as I could, wrote down copious notes, and on the day of the podcast, in typical Steven Adjei fashion, I left the notes at home!!


They were buried deep in my journal till I realised that yesterday was International Happiness Day, and I thought to myself – what better opportunity to dust those notes off the shelf and share with the world!


So I want to dedicate the next three issues of this newsletter, to this topic.


Empathy.


Late last year, I was feeling stuck. So I did the sensible thing, and booked in to see a top-rated coach.


As we went through the corridors of my life and doors I had slammed shut for decades, we uncovered the dominant trait in my life.


Empathy


Since that day, I have been thinking, writing, listening and reading a lot on this topic.


So, let's start with the foundations.


I believe that to practice true empathy, there must be three foundational pillars in place.


  1. Lived experience and imagination;

  2. Non-judgmental curiosity;

  3. An understanding and kind mindset.

Let's dive in!


1. Lived experience and imagination


Marshall Goldsmith, arguably the world’s number 1 coach mentions the law of adjacency. Adjacency simply means using one experience as a fulcrum for another.


Many times, I have heard the comment, especially from my white friends, I will never experience what you have been through with racism.


I even find myself saying the same things to my women friends or people who have suffered bias against religion or sexual orientation.


‘I can't imagine what you’ve been through’ is something I hear a lot.


There is one word for any kind of bias anyone faces, from racism to homophobia, from sexism to Islamophobia.


It’s the word Belittling.


Belittling is dismissing someone or making someone feel as if they are less important.


  • Racism: making someone feel less important and excluded because of their skin colour.

  • Sexism: making someone feel less important and excluded because of their

  • gender.

  • Ageism: Making someone feel less important because of their age.

  • Sexual discrimination: Making someone feel less important because of their

  • sexual orientation.

  • Weight stigmatisation: Making someone feel less important or excluded because of their weight


You get the gist… The reason may be different, but the effects are the same. Discrimination = Exclusion


Everyone has felt belittled at some point in their lives.


So you may not have gone through racism but you would have been belittled at some point in your life.


So using your lived experience and a little bit of imagination, you can empathise


will almost any form of hurt or pain someone has gone through.


But you cannot even use your lived experience or imagination if you don’t care or are disinterested.


This brings me to the next pillar – curiosity.


2. Non-judgemental curiosity


It's no secret that some of the most cynical and judgmental people I have ever met also seem to be the most self-centred and less curious.


You cannot practice empathy without possessing non-judgmental curiosity.


Curiosity is the desire, the inclination to be ‘positively nosy’ – the desire to learn, to understand, to gain knowledge without judgement of any hidden agenda.


As a normal introvert, this is a skill I have had to practice, over and over. And the possibilities are endless… it amazes me how much I have learned over the years by just wanting to hear people’s stories – and how much people are willing to share once they get the tangible vibe that you are genuinely interested in them and what they have to give.


The reason why there is so much polarisation is because people are not curious enough – not interested enough, not selfless enough just to listen and learn.


That may be why we have two ears and one mouth – as my mum kept telling me…


In his brand new book, Be the Unicorn, William Vanderbloemen identifies a defining trait of top leaders – they turn the focus off themselves and onto their audience.


It is almost impossible to practice empathy and be self-centred at the same time.


But using your lived experience and curiosity is not enough to be a true empath. There is one crucial tenant. The way we think.


3. Mindset


Stephen Covey, in possibly his most influential book ever: The Seven Traits of Highly Effective People mentions one trait – Seek to understand, and then be understood.


A lot of our lack of empathy comes from our inherent biases. I remember an instance a few years ago in my early days in the UK when a British Asian had come to take over to lead a team that was all white.


A member of the team complained why they had to bring someone across the miles to lead – and why they couldn’t find someone local. The member was asked to check if there were any ‘foreigners’ in the team – he couldn’t identify any. Until it was pointed out to him that there had been a white South African standing right next to him.


Inherent bias.


We need to turn the dials in our minds to be humble, to know that we may not have all the answers, to recognise our biases even before we begin to listen. This is hard. It means taking every single person as unique. A blank canvas. A masterpiece. The greatest lessons I have learned about life are the people completely different from me. So there you have it.


Imaginative lived experience. Non-judgemental Curiosity. Mindset. The three pillars for effective empathy.


However, empathy is often misunderstood as a weakness. In the next edition, I will discuss what empathy is not.


Stay tuned.


 

Steven N. Adjei, Author

Steven N. Adjei is an award-winning British-Ghanaian best-selling author, poet, speaker, healthcare consultant, entrepreneur, and pharmacist. He is the founding partner of BlueCloud Health (part of the Emerald Group), an advisory and consulting firm with offices in London, Dubai, and Delhi with clients all over the world. He has an MBA from Warwick Business School.


His first book, (Pay The Price: Creating Ethical Entrepreneurial Success Through Passion, Pain and Purpose) released on 17 October 2022 was an instant international bestseller in 18 categories on Amazon, has garnered 2 prestigious awards, and has received critical acclaim throughout the world. He is currently working on his second book, “Chasing Permanence: thriving you and your business in a constantly changing world” , set to be released in early 2024.

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