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Empathy: Pass it on

Graphic for Leadership Commentary Series

Graphic for Leadership Commentary Series

F. E. WARREN AIR FORCE BASE, Wyo. --

During this unique time, it is easy for people to get overwhelmed. From the pandemic to current race relations to the upcoming election, it appears that no matter where you look, there is something about each topic, good, bad or indifferent. All the animosity in the U.S. coupled with everyday life can be too much for some or bring out emotions and opinions in people we would have least expected. From our own individual families to the Airmen in our squadrons, 2020 has been tough on everyone; and to be honest, there are many who feel that things are not getting any better. However, one way for us as families, the Air Force and United States to begin to move forward and overtake this animosity is to fully practice empathy.

I know as you read this, you may be thinking how “feeling someone’s pain” would go toward fixing any of what’s going on in the world. By unpacking that phrase, it shows how deep empathy is and the other values that are shown within it. The ability to “feel someone’s pain” means that we as individuals must put ourselves in other’s shoes to see their point of view. Some would call that respect. 

Recently, it was announced there is still race disparity in the Air Force. We all had to have “tough conversations” within our squadrons; but in reality, these talks will not move the ball forward if everyone involved does not try to put themselves in another person’s shoes. Attempting to understand where someone else is coming from can be an awakening moment. We all came from different places, and have different life experiences.

In a perfect world, we would all uses these differences to learn and drive towards making society better instead of being divisive. Next is the ability to feel a person’s emotions as if they are your own. We have all known that person who lights up a room when they walk in a room or the person who has such a negative attitude it drags down the office. That indirect absorption of energy is considered a part of empathy. Personally my wife has really taught me a lot about this, as having awareness of the energy around you improves how you approach life. Being emotionally intelligent is a key trait that we all need to understand. From our families, to the office and everything in between, being emotionally intelligent is very important because it allows us to be aware of how our emotions affect people around us and read other people’s emotional queues. 

Combining emotional intelligence and the ability of putting yourself in other people’s shoes can be profound and show the full effect of being empathetic. Listening to people’s stories can take on a different meaning and we can connect to people at a different level than just surface level conversations. This also allows us at our homes or squadrons to have positive and healthy conversations and disagreements.

That’s right, being empathetic does not mean we have to treat everything we are confronted with as if it were rainbows and sunshine. Having positive and constructive disagreements allows for personal growth and ability to work quick resolution or compromise for everyone involved. In order for this to happen, all the traits of empathy need to be brought to the table. However, when there is no respect, understanding or emotional intelligence involved, the result can, at times, be worse than it was before or at least status quo.

An example of when empathy is not involved in solving a disagreement would be the issue about confederate flags and statues. The large argument for keeping those symbols around was southern and family pride in the past and all the people who wanted to take them down don’t have pride in the history of the state. In reality those people wanting those symbols taken down see a celebration of a painful past where there was slavery, death on ships crossing the Atlantic, lynching, family separation, and second class citizenship for more than 100 years after the Civil War ended. These arguments were very ugly and resulted in sweeping change that removed a large majority of these symbols. As we all know, even though there was a sweeping change, it is still a contentious subject because the overall goal of understanding the reason for taking the symbols was lost.

Refocusing back on the animosity and divisiveness in society, it is easy to see that society as a whole is lacking empathy. Being empathetic is tough and it takes time. Think of it as a muscle that needs to be worked out to make stronger and more effective. Depending on what article you read or what is posted on Facebook, it seems like things are hopeless. With that being said, there is hope because as Airmen, we are considered role models in society, and by being empathetic leaders, we can affect society one day at a time. We can start with our families and then just take things one day at a time after that. Will it be easy? No, but based on the profession we chose, easy is not in our vocabulary.