Increase Your Empathy

Good news!  Typically, if you are a generally stable person, your empathy has been increasing as you have grown older.

 If you reflect on your life, you will probably realize that your experiences, whether in “real life” or in reading about others, of new situations and of people who are different than you—in age, in gender, in skin color, in ability, in sexual orientation, in religious beliefs, in nationality—have increased your store of empathy.

Once you can put an individual human face on one of these “differences,” your empathy expands. And so does your ability to be compassionate.

But there is more you can actually choose to do, actions you can take to increase your empathy, compassion and the ability to connect with anyone you interact with daily.  Here is a brief list of possibilities:

  • Make a habit of expressing your appreciation of others every day
  • Ask yourself, “What is this person feeling?” especially in those sticky situations
  • Be true to your promises to others
  • Become aware of the impact you have on others (keep a log)
  • Identify and support a project that provides service to others who are in need
  • Learn to listen by reflecting thoughts and feelings back to others
  • Read widely to include perspectives of others who live or have lived lives very different from yours
  • Ask gentle questions:  What can I do for you?  What do you need?
  • Become an observer of how people express their feelings—including body language and other non-verbal communication
  • Build a work culture that is emotionally safe and friendly
  • Ask for feedback about your behavior, decisions, and words (perhaps through a 360 degree feedback instrument)
  • Attempt to see a tough situation from another’s perspective
  • Develop a sincere interest in other people by asking yourself what they have to teach you
  • Be willing to share your passions and interests with others

What step might you be willing to take to increase your empathy?

(Excerpted from Emotional Intelligence for a Compassionate World: Workbook for Enhancing Emotional Intelligence Skills by Barbara A. Kerr, Ph.D. available in paperback or Kindle editions on


What About That Bad Boss?

Team Building

What About That Bad Boss?

No one, not even an apple, likes to gain the label “bad,” and most of us would rather not have to use it to describe anyone either. At my house, our five-year-old cat, Dave, is referred to as a good cat who does naughty things (this explanation for our three-year-old granddaughter). Most of the time Dave is a loving, curious, and amusingly agile cat whom we love to have around, but he has a propensity to eat certain things (ribbon, yarn, plastic, grocery bag handles), which have given him some varying degrees of gastrointestinal problems and have given us some rather hefty vet bills. We sigh and say that Dave is a good cat who does naughty things.

Do You Have a Bad Boss?

That is often how we can describe people, too—especially some managers who happen to be our bosses. They may be well-intentioned, often are super smart, experienced, and competent to accomplish the work assigned to them. But they also do naughty things: they berate their employees or more subtly try to make them feel guilty. They forget to add a dash of praise or to “encourage the heart” of those who report to them. They set an example of constant complaint and pessimism as a general rule instead of leading with vision, strength, and optimism. They gossip and talk endlessly about problems instead of solutions. They wear a woe-is-me badge and expect to be taken care of by their employees—and do not seem to be concerned about the personal and professional challenges of those same employees. Does this fit any boss you know? Perhaps you have labeled this person a “bad boss.”

Lack of Self-Awareness is the Major Cause

Dave the cat is more easily forgiven for his naughty activities, of course. Unlike his human counterpart, the bad boss, he has little or no understanding of the dangers and consequences of his bad behavior (he once ate some floral ribbon that had a strand of wire in it—and had to be operated on to the tune of several thousand dollars). Unfortunately, this lack of self-awareness, which we expect in a cat, is also at the root of the bad boss problem. Quite simply, self-awareness, a foundational aspect of emotional intelligence, is often what that bad boss lacks.

The lack of self-awareness shows up in a variety of ways. If you have to work for such a boss—or if you suspect that you may be such a boss—it may be helpful to look at the behaviors that expose the gap. You can recognize those who have a deficit in self-awareness in at least four behaviors and the effects those behaviors have on employees:

  1. They are unable to reliably identify their own feelings in a given situation. This inability means that employees will have a difficult time knowing how the boss is going to react to anything. One day the boss may explode in anger, but on another day he or she may dismiss the same issue with a wave of he hand. This inconsistency creates and sustains tension that can devastate morale and personally affect the well-being of employees.
  1. They have little understanding of how others perceive them. Somehow, these people seem stuck in early childhood patterns, a time when they could throw a tantrum but then recover with little or no consequences. They may behave badly but then expect that the employees will completely forget their lack of self-management and/or forgive them for whatever they said or did. They depend on their position of authority and can be frightened if they feel that rug being pulled out from under them in any way.
  1. They do not see a pattern in their response to various people or situations. Employees—and former employees—would be able to make a good list of the bad boss’s typical responses, but the boss is unable to see the pattern in his or her own behaviors. For example, the bad boss complains about an administrative assistant to other employees (in an attempt to get their support); the admin, who may or may not hear of the criticism, feels it in any case, and may respond by being uncommunicative or perhaps seethes with anger that is expressed in a variety of ways. The employee may even decide to file a suit for a hostile workplace situation. The bad boss cannot see his or her part in this activity even if it has happened more than once.
  1. They are clueless about their intent or attitude as they communicate with others. Employees find themselves being forced to listen as this bad boss spews out obvious bias or innuendos that are damaging to other employees in the organization. They may also attempt to make themselves appear smarter by criticizing their peers and superiors—often finding themselves isolated even among their colleagues. The bad boss may keep things vague so that an employee has little clear direction about how to handle a given situation, which is an attempt by the boss to control the employee and possibly make him or her look bad in the eyes of others. It may be hard to believe, but the boss is not even aware that he or she is doing this.

What to do About that Bad Boss?

Once a “bad boss” is identified by these behaviors, there are four basic possibilities to deal with this undesirable situation. One, if the situation caused by the bad boss is recognized by the organization (perhaps through a 360-degree feedback process, for example), the boss can be fired or asked to resign. Second, the unhappy employee(s) may resign (or even bring suit as mentioned above). Third, the bad boss, if he or she is valuable enough to the organization, may be offered the services of a coach, who can work with him or her on self-awareness as well as other emotional intelligence traits. And finally, the employee can choose to make changes in his or her own attitude so that the effects of the bad boss’s behaviors are at least dampened.

This last option—the employee’s change in attitude–is not an ideal solution, but it may serve until the bad boss can either be removed or remediated. In the case of Dave the cat, we learned which unhealthy but attractive materials had to be kept out of Dave’s reach (though he surprisingly ate a large piece of netting from a doll’s cape because we had no idea of its attraction for him) because we understood what triggers his naughty behavior. We can be compassionate to Dave because we know he is incapable of monitoring his own health or our pocketbook. We are not angry, but we do what we can to keep him safe and ourselves solvent.

Similarly, in a bad boss situation, an employee does not have to feel ambushed every time the boss launches into a bad behavior, but the employee can take steps toward creating a healthier environment:

  1. Observe the boss to understand his or her needs. When we deal with cats or three-year-old children, we have a pretty good idea of their needs. Understanding the behavior of an adult, especially one with authority and power, seems more complicated. However, all of these creatures (cats, kids, and bosses) have some basic needs that cannot be ignored. Each needs care and attention, and each needs to feel safe rather than fearful. Observe the boss’s behavior to understand what he or she needs—not to become manipulative, but to gain compassion for the boss as another human being with strengths and weaknesses like all of us.
  1. Build your own self-awareness. View the bad boss situation as an opportunity to build the self-observer within you. Become a keen observer of the effect that your own words and actions have on those with whom you interact. Experiment with changing one small behavior—perhaps how you respond when the boss is complaining, for example—and see whether that has any positive effect. If you’ve been trying to supply answers to resolve the boss’s complaints, you might try simply listening and reflecting back what he or she has said. Then observe what effect that has on the boss.
  1. Take care of yourself. Yes, you are probably feeling the need to walk on tiptoes around a boss who has the power to get you fired. But that doesn’t mean that you must turn into a frozen statue, afraid to do or say anything to improve your own situation. You can find ways to take care of yourself including sharing your worries with a trusted colleague or friend, taking a break when you feel the tension rising (lunch away from the office or even a “mental health” day), making sure you get time with family and friends who love and care about you, planning activities (exercising, listening to music, spending time outdoors) that bring you joy, and journaling to better understand your own reactions to the situation.
  1. Look back on a problem solved. Okay, this one takes a bit of imagination, but it is a way of gaining perspective and therefore calm for yourself. Choose a future date—say a year from now. Imagine that, one way or another, this issue has been resolved. What is the worst outcome? (You’ve been fired? Your colleagues have resigned and brought law suits against the boss?) What is the best outcome you can imagine? (Your boss has resigned? Has been provided a coach who actually has made progress with him or her?) We exist in an environment of constant change, and acting as if you will always be as miserable as you are right now is unrealistic. In a year, you more than likely will have various issues and challenges, but it probably will not be this one!

The lack of self-awareness in kids and cats is easily understandable. We actually enjoy watching small children in imaginative play—talking and singing aloud, oblivious to whomever is listening. And as YouTube statistics indicate, many of us find delight in watching cats and kittens go about their I-don’t-care-what-you-think antics. Such lack of self-awareness is actually somewhat refreshing and often fun. Unfortunately, that is not the case when we are dealing with adults—especially adults who happen to be our supervisors and bosses. We have a right to expect that managers will have achieved enough self-awareness to be able to lead—to encourage and inspire us to be our best selves.   On the optimistic side, you can hope for the boss to resign or gain some healthy self-awareness with a good coach. Meanwhile, take care of yourself by recognizing and observing the bad boss’s patterns and taking steps to build your own self-awareness.





Empathy Begins Here



In my granddaughter Mia’s preschool, five small white toilets are lined up along a tiled bathroom wall just around the corner from five conveniently low sinks for washing hands. The boys and girls in the Peacefulness classroom line up together to take turns on the toilets. Like many of her classmates, Mia is not quite three years old, so learning to go to the “potty” by herself and leaving diapers behind has been a developmental milestone of which she is understandably quite proud.

Maybe conquering this grown-up task so recently is what has made her empathize with a classmate (I’ll call him Jack) who found that using the school bathroom is not quite as comfortable as accomplishing this task in his home bathroom. Mia’s teacher reported that when she tried to coax an anxious Jack to go in to the potty during outdoor recess, Mia not only volunteered to accompany him but patted his shoulder and sang songs as he tried to do what he was there to do.

And then his mom sent Mia’s mom this email:

Hi Mia’s mom,

This is Jack’s mom. Thank you for tagging me in the photos. I wish there were more, and [the teacher] promised that there will be more!

I think Mia might share with you today that Jack finally went poop in potty yesterday (Thank god!) The teacher told me that Mia went to say “Good job” to Jack. How sweet is she! But what I really want to thank Mia for was the fact that according to the teacher, Mia accompanied Jack earlier this week to teach him how to poop in the toilet in the washroom.  She also told him “good job” and “you can do it” and sang to him while he sat on the toilet (which he didn’t want to do at first). That’s like the sweetest thing I have heard! And I’m sure it wouldn’t be a surprise to you that when I asked Jack who would he like to sit with in the class, “MIA!” he said.

Thanks to Mia again for helping little Jack achieve his “poop” success.

Have a lovely day.

Warmest regards,

Jack’s mom

Little Mia’s apparent ability to empathize with Jack’s situation touched the hearts of all the “grown-ups” who observed it, and this is why I think that is so: Despite the terrifying problems of our current world situation, we understand that we can begin only as individuals to bring about meaningful change for the more than seven billion beings who share our planet. We can be hopeful, for at not-yet-three-years-old, Mia has learned enough about the world to realize that other people count, that connection is essential, that compassionate action—no matter how small scale—can make a difference in at least one person’s life.

In a recent blog, renowned author Anne Lamott reminded me of a most wonderful quote from Ram Dass, which now comes to mind as I smile and think of Mia’s compassion: “We are all just walking each other home.” This is emotional intelligence at its best—empathizing and connecting with others, reaching out to help each other with daily problems, giving a hand to help someone else get through the obstacle course that confronts us every day in whatever sphere we inhabit. What difference can you make in someone’s life today?


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Self-Awareness Matters, A Lot

face as puzzle

Recently, after getting off a flight from a relaxing, stress-free vacation in sunny Mexico, I found myself in a slow-moving line at U.S. Customs.  With no attempt to eavesdrop, I couldn’t help but hear a conversation taking place less than two feet behind me—apparently two businessmen discussing one of their colleagues—or more likely, one of their employees.

“That was just not funny in the least,” said the gray-haired and rather distinguished looking man who was clearly feeling outraged.  “This isn’t the first time, and taking that picture there in the airport was the final straw,” he went on.  “What was she thinking?  It’s time to get rid of her.”

The other fellow did not have the same sense of outrage, but neither did he seem to want to contradict the man who may have been his boss.  After a few minutes of listening and kind of grunting his assent, he tried changing the subject.  But then the outraged guy was right back at it.  “She’s entertaining, and she’s smart, but she just doesn’t know her limits.  That was not funny at all.  There have been too many incidents.  We’re going to have to do something.”

It was all I could do not to swing my head around and get a closer look at these two guys.  And I would have loved to know what it is that the smart, funny woman (I was picturing an attractive woman—perhaps Generation X or Y) had said or done to make this man angry enough to blast his feelings to any number of people dragging their suitcases through Customs.

In his anger—it was clear that the woman under discussion had somehow touched a hot button—he wasn’t aware or didn’t care who heard him as he planned his revenge out loud.  At that moment, I was wishing that I could call the woman, whoever she was, and warn her that her behavior had been perceived as threatening and that if she wanted to keep her job, she had better modify her words, actions, and attitude around her boss.

Then it occurred to me that both the man (whom I assume to be the boss) and the woman (whom I assume to be an employee) are suffering from the same problem—a lack of self-awareness.  Self-awareness is the foundational piece of Emotional Intelligence.  A lack of it can cause problems in other areas—managing one’s emotions, understanding what others are feeling, building satisfying relationships with others, and even having the resilience that is needed to cope with the inevitable changes and challenges that are part of life.  Self-awareness matters, a lot.

I don’t know the true and doubtless complicated story of the man in the Customs line, but in the story I  created about him after listening to his tirade for ten minutes or more, he is not self-aware.  He probably cannot find the words to describe how he is feeling in the moment.  He may have been surprised to learn that the employee—the woman who behaved so boldly—perceives him in a way that does not match his perception of himself.  He did not seem aware that the man listening to him on line was uncomfortable—not to mention those of us strangers who were standing in close proximity.

Such lack of self-awareness makes this distinguished gentleman appear much like a two-year old who has been thwarted in some way.  I imagine that he is an intelligent man, a business executive, perhaps the owner of his own business.  He may work very hard and even have taken his employees to a retreat at a resort in a sunny clime.  But I also imagine that he finds himself confused by an inability to relate to the people around him.  He may have similar difficulties relating to his family members.  I imagine that instead of trying to understand those he lives and works with, he falls back on his authority—as a father, as a boss—but that he is left feeling dissatisfied and even isolated.

And what about the woman who may have been fired on Monday?  I don’t know her real story either, but the story I’ve created about her tells me that she, too, lacks self-awareness.  And that lack is going to get her into trouble sooner or later.  She is smart, she is entertaining—so says the man who does not find her funny.  She may not be aware, however, of her own intentions and attitudes as she jokes or kids her colleagues.  She may also not be aware of how others perceive her, even as they are laughing.  She may feel that being smart—perhaps she is a graduate of Yale or Stanford or Duke—is enough, and that she doesn’t have to care about others’ emotions.

Okay, so these stories are fictions imagined from brief observations, but they might be true. Haven’t we all observed and known people who lack this self-awareness?  The good news is that self-awareness isn’t a genetically transmitted character trait;  self-awareness can be taught, and it can be learned.  From early childhood forward, we have been learning to be more self-aware, and many of us still have a few lessons to learn.  Self-awareness matters, a lot.

Barbara Kerr is the owner of Emotional Intelligence Insights and offers an interactive, online, on-demand course (anywhere, anytime at your convenience) to teach the concepts and skills of Emotional Intelligence and offer more than 50 steps you can take to increase your Emotional Intelligence skills.

For more information about Emotional Intelligence 101, go to