Making (Almost) Any Relationship Better
We’ve all heard it from the pulpit. Maybe you’ve said it yourself: “People don’t care how much you know. They want to know how much you care.” But as often as I’ve heard it, I don’t think I really understood the saying until recently.
I (Jason) had the opportunity to share a stage with my wife at a couples’ retreat (remember when everyone could get together in person?). We were presenting a talk on the topic of communication and how to make it better in any relationship. As we studied the Scripture in preparation, we kept running into the same concept, which I’ve come to believe is at the core of all positive communication.
The ability to hear (and be heard) accurately and effectively comes down to one thing: empathy.
As this revelation settled in, I started looking at every communication problem I’ve had in my life. Whether it was with a family member, an employee, a client, or a friend, the same root problem would reassert itself over and over again.
A communication failure is symptomatic of a breakdown in empathy.
Definition of Empathy
The dictionary defines “empathy” as an action in which we develop the capacity to:
- Become aware of
- Become sensitive to
- And vicariously experience
…the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of another. But there’s a caveat: These thoughts, feelings, and experiences are something the other person will never be able to communicate fully or explicitly.
Empathy requires heart, imagination, and love.
The way I’ve defined it for myself is simply this: Empathy is the ability to put myself in someone else’s shoes. I try to think what they may be thinking and feel what they may be feeling. I do this, hoping to understand what they’re experiencing.
As a Christian leader, there are three areas in which I see a lack of empathy holding my fellow leaders (and myself) back:
- In our closest relationships
- With our staff members
- In our marketing efforts
Applying Empathy to Our Closest Relationships
As Christian leaders, our “job” is to show empathy to others: the person we’re counseling, the dissatisfied congregant, the stranger, the orphan, and the widow.
Before we know it, compassion fatigue sets in. Our loved ones get the dregs of our emotional well, and we stop showing empathy to the most important people in our lives.
But here’s something to remember: No relationship can survive without empathy. When we lose the ability to put ourselves in another person’s shoes, two-way communication stops.
For example, when I mess up, my wife has a hard time receiving my apology unless she can actually feel how sorry I am. It won’t hit home until I’ve articulated that I understand her point of view.
Communicating with empathy makes our closest relationships stronger.
Here’s another example.
I’m a tall guy. Recently, when I was having lunch with a new pastor friend, he said, “Tell me about when you played basketball, ‘cause I know you played.”
Well, I started talking — it was a great time in my life, and I still enjoy playing when I can. It wasn’t until later I thought, “He doesn’t care about basketball at all!”
I learned that day that my new friend has a finely-developed sense of empathy. He got me to talk about something he knew I’d be excited about because empathy says, “I’m willing to like what you like.”
This is why I know so much about Fortnight (my son) and ballet (my daughter). When we allow empathy to change us, we’re better able to show love to other people.
Church Leadership and Empathy
I’ve served both as a church and business leader. As I look back at some of my earliest experiences, I feel a pang when I think about some of the decisions I made.
This was me at my worst: I didn’t want people to blow it on my watch. I wanted them to do things right so they wouldn’t ruin my success. I thought my job was to keep people from destroying what I was trying to build.
But empathy, when it’s at work in me, inspires something very different. It says, “How can I serve my staff so they can succeed.” In other words, empathy causes me to be more concerned with another person’s success than my own.
Empathetic leadership unlocks synergy and creates an atmosphere of enthusiastic teamwork. Everyone benefits.
Empathy and Planning Ahead
As leaders, we can be prone to chaos. It’s easy to say, “I need this done tomorrow! I’m paying you — snap to it!”
Now, quick deadlines and short turnaround times are part of life, but these should be the exception, not the rule. When leaders plan ahead, it shows empathy toward those who work for them.
The resulting work will be higher in quality and more creative. Those who are serving you will feel like you actually care about their experience.
Approaching Branding with Empathy
Unfortunately, people who “don’t believe in marketing” engage in bad marketing all the time. When a poorly communicated event is coming up — and it looks like no one is coming — they bombard a random audience with Facebook messages, emails, and automated calls.
Communication like this doesn’t consider the other person’s perspective. It works against everything we stand for as Christians.
But this is what good marketing is about:
- Adding real value
Great marketing begins and ends in empathy.
Making Others the Champion
Many church leaders push back against the idea of “marketing” because they don’t believe in saying, “We’re great — better than everyone else! Come to our church!” Nobody likes that. Why would they?
Quality marketing is this:
- Understand who you want to serve
- Create something that serves those people well
- Find out what obstacles will keep them from receiving what you offer
- Remove those obstacles as best you can
- Communicate all of that clearly and with empathy
When you think like this, the other person becomes the champion of the story. You take a backseat, merely offering something that will make another person’s life better.
This is foundational to everything we do as Christians.
Is this not our calling? Is this not what Christ did? Our Creator became creation, then led us as us.
“In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself
By becoming obedient to death — even death on a cross!”
Love says, “I’m coming to you on your terms. I’m not asking you to come to me.”
Every time we communicate anything, let’s ask ourselves: “How can I be more Christ-like and show empathy to those I’m trying to speak to?”