Learning Together – My 6 Favorite Books For Building Empathy

by Jan 25, 2017Insights

The standard definition of empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. It is also a noun, which means it is a thing we possess. The only addition I would add is that true empathy for a leader is to understand and USE in a relational setting; reading and analyzing people from afar is not empathy because it only gets created when we build a relationship through conversation.

These books could be done in book study groups, but not all really lend themselves to that so don’t feel bound by that rule. If you do choose to book study, there are my standard tips at the bottom of this page.

#1For Men Only OR For Women Only by Shaunti and Jeff Feldhahn

Why I recommend these books:

By definition, empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. I would add “and to openly talk about those assumptions with another person to build your knowledge of them, which can be used to strengthen the relationship.” The best place to start practicing empathy is to focus on a spouse or partner. This book series is fun; for a marriage it has one for the husband and one for the wife. I have known friends that have read this with other couples and it is a good way to laugh, learn, and get information that will help you see things through the eyes of someone you love. The benefit: if you build this understanding at home and the confidence to talk about it, that will translate over to work.

#2Strengthsfinder 2.0 by Tom Rath

Why I recommend this book:

Assessments to build empathy? Knowing the talents of the people around you – and experiencing them through their gifts to a team – makes decisions around who will do what a powerful conversation. This conversation IS an empathy conversation because it fills in the “Why?” as we enter difficult situations around getting work down together. The silent question of “What are they thinking?” needs to be answered openly so we can trust and debate. This tool is accessible, affordable, and easy for teams to use on their own to spend a couple of hours learning about each other.

#3The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman

Why I recommend this book:

For many of the same reasons I picked For Men Only/For Women Only, I offer this selection. It provides a couple – and I mean any two people in a relationship regardless of gender – with some words to share how they experience love. The author offers preferences around words of affirmation, physical touch, gifts, service, or time. It provides a great foundation to understand how someone else experiences love and the ensuing conversation will build empathy. The knowledge you will gain does translate to the workplace, especially in the rewards and recognition understanding. Once you understand it, simple observance and asking some questions will help you apply this to building stronger relationships.

#4Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom

Why I recommend this book:

Any book by Mitch Albom is good for shifting perspective. I offered this book up recently to a friend who was working on answering the question “What do I want to be remembered for?”. This book helps provide a perspective on life from someone that is dying from ALS. Books about life experiences (death, first child, divorce, marriage, cancer, adoption, persecution, etc.) help us see an event through the eyes of someone else. If you leverage that knowledge to have a conversation and use that information to build a stronger relationship – – then you are building empathy.

#5The Art of Racing in the Rain: A Novel by Garth Stein

Why I recommend this book:

For anyone who owns a dog, this is a fun read; you will never experience a dog the same way after reading it! I loved this book, and when I watch our golden-doodle Harper watch TV, stare at us, or go off into her own world of sniffing and licking, I think of this book. A great book that makes you think, “What are they seeing and thinking right now?” has done its job. The only challenge with dogs is the required conversation to confirm it and deepen the relationship. Of course, there is Dr. Doolittle for that!

#6 – [Insert any book that is recommended by someone with the caveat – Read this and you will understand me]
Why I recommend this book:
Keep your ears open and these will come. Especially look for opportunities with people you work with that have endured something you have never experienced (death, divorce, job loss, immigration, adoption) or come from a very different background than you do. Remember the book is not designed for you to sit back and analyze someone, but to leverage what you heard to have a conversation with someone so you better understand their perspective.

Listen . . . Lead. Repeat often!

My tips for any group that commits to reading a book together:

  • Keep the group size appropriate for the intensity of the book. For these books, keep it to 2-4 people that know each other. If it is a couples book, keep it to a group of only people in relationships. For Strengthsfinder or Tuesdays with Morrie you can go to a larger group (6-8). This is a topic that requires sharing, so maintain a group size and chemistry that supports that happening.
  • Read it over 3-4 meetings.
  • Use 3×5 cards to document what people are going to practice before their next meeting and to capture key insights/how you might apply it. (I learned most people do not write in books – and I learned this by writing a book that required people to write in it!)
  • Pick the best facilitator as the leader, and feel free to rotate leadership. Do not make the person who talks the most the leader or the executive that will feel the need to pontificate about leadership. Sharing is encouraged; dominating is not.
  • End Big – A great idea is for people to write up some of their key learnings to share via a company newsletter or all-employee meeting. Maybe even look for where the author speaks or see if the author will jump in for a 30-minute question and answer for a webinar? At the very least, share a meal or a drink to wrap up the experience.

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