The best description of empathy I have ever heard is that it’s the ability to put on another person’s shoes, walk around in them and experience the world from their perspective. Of course, you don’t have to wear someone else’s shoes but if you want to improve your ability to communicate across cultural differences, you must be able to understand other’s feelings, situation, ideas, values and goals. Empathy is a powerful communication tool for at least two reasons. First, it helps you better understand those around you. Second, by becoming more empathetic, you invite others to better understand your circumstances, needs and objectives.
One of the best ways to increase your empathy (as well as your cultural knowledge) is to experience the things that culturally different people experience on a regular basis. This can help you better understand the values, beliefs and behaviors of people who are culturally different. Go to diverse places of worship, visit different cultural events, go to various social activities, visit different ethnic restaurants, talk to different people at work or do anything else that puts you in direct proximity with people you don’t normally interact with. In one-on-one conversations, you can demonstrate empathy by listening first, by trying to understand where your colleagues and co-workers are coming from, and by articulating your understanding on a consistent basis (i.e., active listening, summarizing your conversations).
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Dr. Tyrone A. Holmes is an author, speaker, coach and consultant. He helps his clients develop the skills needed to communicate, resolve conflict, solve problems and improve performance in diverse organizational settings.