EQ WORKOUT #14 Want to Expand Your Empathy? Widen Your Circle

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I recently released my new book Leadership Lessons From The Pub. Of course, many are curious about the connection between leadership and a pub. It’s important to understand that the pub is more than a place to go and have a drink – it’s much more than that. Indeed, my father used to say “I am not in the business of selling drinks rather, I am offering a home where everyone is welcome.” The pub is a community. It is a place to meet neighbors and friends. It is a place where people feel accepted and included, warts and all. The pub is a safe space.

It’s only possible to be vulnerable if you feel that you are on friendly ground. It is their locale, a place where they belong. The pub is a place where people can be real and where the messiness of life is accepted and celebrated.

The pub is also a place where strangers are welcomed and brought into the circle. When someone new walks into a pub, it is not long before someone is chatting with them and

asking them their name and where they are from. While this inquisitiveness might make some uncomfortable, it comes from a place of genuine curiosity and a desire to bring the stranger into the fold.

Research has shown that there’s a connection between our level of empathy and how wide our circle of friends and acquaintances is. At the core of empathy is the ability to put ourselves in another person’s situation. What is it like to walk in their shoes? What are their struggles?

I grew up in Northern Ireland during the times of The Troubles. Society had turned tribal, and, in many ways, communication had broken down. We only talked with people who shared the same worldview and agreed with us in all things – it was an echo chamber.

Over the past number of years here in the US, I’ve watched in horror as the same tendencies reared their ugly heads. Our circles have become closed and, in many cases, have diminished. We are forgetting how to have civil discourse and our empathy for others has lessened. Of course, there are many justifications we can make about the situation yet we must also realize that the cost is immense.

Over the years, my work has brought me into contact with diverse sets of people. I believe that when we scratch below the surface, more often than not, we encounter someone with dreams, passions, fears and pains which are more similar than different. It is this which fuels our empathy.

For this week’s EQ workout, I prepared an exercise around our circle of friends and acquaintances. It invites one to consider who is in our circle and how diverse it is. It then challenges us to find ways of widening the circle. Who might we bring into it?