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.





Build Your Emotional Intelligence Muscle!

Build Your Emotional Intelligence Muscles!

Emotional Intelligence skills–understanding and managing your own emotions, recognizing others’ emotions, interacting successfully with other people, and building resilience–can all be improved.

Like any skill–developing a great golf swing, sketching a decent portrait, adding a killer serve to your tennis game, or learning to read Mandarin Chinese–learning Emotional Intelligence skills takes time, practice, and motivation.

Now you can learn and practice the Emotional Intelligence skills that will result in your greater success, satisfaction, and well-being.  The self-directed, online course, EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE 101, available anytime, anywhere at your convenience, helps you build your “Emotional Intelligence muscles” through engaging text, photos, videos, reflections, and exercises including more than 40 practical suggestions for building Emotional Intelligence skills.

You CAN build your Emotional Intelligence skills.  Learn more at  Discounts available for teams/groups of 8 or more.

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

What’s Funny About That?

kitten and dogs

On a recent lazy Sunday morning as my sweetie and I were sipping coffee in bed, I glanced through the email on my iPad with the vague intention of clearing out my overflowing email inbox.  As I ruthlessly pressed delete for any number of ads and notifications, I noticed that a friend with a quirky sense of humor had sent me a link to a video. I was tempted to zap it—let’s just say that his sense of humor and mine are often a mismatch.  But the alarmed expression on the young woman’s face on the video screen pulled me in, so I clicked on the arrow.  During the next few minutes I laughed so hard that I cried—and just about spilled my coffee.  I’ve watched the video several times since then and shared it with friends.  I continue to laugh just thinking about it. Now I’m interested in why I’m laughing because we can all use more laughter in our lives, right? 

What was so funny?  A crew of technical experts set up an elaborate prank in a New York coffee shop, a prank not unlike the old You’re on Candid Camera setups but much more sophisticated.  The video showed the preparations for fooling people and then showed in quick succession the expressions and body language of the people who were targeted by the prank.  They were amused at first and curious, then they were surprised, then they were shocked, then they were incredulous, and in the end most everyone was frightened to the point of actually getting up and running away.  You can see the video here (it is actually an ad for a remake of the movie, Carrie):

Fear, it turns out, can be elicited easily enough, even among a young, savvy group of New Yorkers just beginning a routine day in the big city. Although actors were used in the setup—customers who sat in the coffee shop and began an argument over spilled coffee—there is no mistaking the expressions on the faces of those real customers who unwittingly entered the shop and ordered their cappuccinos and bagels on a morning they expected to be like any other.  One young woman had her phone camera out and tried to take a picture until she, too, quickly backed away in fright.  The two-and-a-half-minute video is a great study in how emotions show up in our facial expressions and body language.    

I’m interested in these visible expressions of emotions, and I teach them in workshops and in an online course as part of being more aware of others’ emotions. The eminent psychologist, Paul Ekman has shown that no matter where you go in this world (and he even went to remote villages untouched by western civilization), people recognize at least seven “universal” facial expressions.  Recognizing and being sensitive to others’ emotional expressions is a major aspect of Emotional Intelligence, and it is possible to learn how to better understand how people feel by learning about what is revealed in their expressions and in the ways they hold or move their bodies. 

But I’m even more curious about why I find watching this video and the frantic fright and flight of the coffee shop customers—funny! Is it some sadistic streak that I keep hidden from myself—I who like to think of myself as kind and empathetic?  Does my enjoyment come from the fact that I’m “in” on the joke whereas the customers are not?  How is it that the designers of this elaborate prank have so exactly touched my funny bone?  Because I’m aware that humor helps us cope with pain, stress, and adversity, and can help build a store of resilience, the experience of watching this video piqued my curiosity about what is funny.

I found a wonderful explanation on a TED talk by Peter McGraw, who describes himself as a full-time scholar and part-time adventurer.  He has developed what he calls the “benign violation theory” to explain what makes things funny.  The meaning of the word “violation” is simply anything that threatens the way you think the world ought to be—in other words, you sense that something is wrong in a situation.  If the violation is “malign”—someone gets hurt or there are other terrible consequences—we do not laugh.  When the violation is benign, however, we find it funny.  McGraw explains several ways to make a situation benign—when we do not take the violation seriously, when the situation is psychologically distant from us (it happens to someone else, it happened a long time ago, it is just too unreal), or when there is an alternative explanation (such as a “mock attack” like tickling). 

So—for a situation to be funny, there has to be some kind of threat, something that is “not right” according to our expectation of what is normal.  At the same time, the situation must be benign, although that concept is a bit more complicated (when someone else trips on the curb it is funnier than when you trip on the curb for example).  I have an eleven-month-old granddaughter who loves the “threat” of me crawling around the kitchen island to where she is crawling on the other side.  She hears me coming (I’m saying, “Where is Mia?”) and she is chortling with expectation, for although I am a sort of “threat” because I will catch her, she knows that I will simply scoop her up with a hug and a kiss.  Even a baby finds humor in a situation that is a violation but simultaneously benign.

The coffee shop video was funny for the same reason.  Because I was in on the joke, I knew that the situation was absolutely benign.  The actors weren’t really angry, the coffee that was spilled on a computer didn’t matter, and the telekinetic consequences (the offending coffee spiller was thrown against the wall and rose several feet upwards when the “victim” simply waved her hand at him!) were all staged.  But the looks on the faces of the innocent bystanders was absolutely priceless—and extremely funny. 

I loved being able to laugh so hard!  My work in Emotional Intelligence has helped me realize how much humor can help us live with greater balance and well-being.  Adding humor to our lives can help us add positivity, improve interpersonal relationships, and build resilience—all aspects of Emotional Intelligence.  Fortunately, Peter McGraw has some ideas for living a more humorous life.  You may want to look at his TED video ( or visit his blog ( Here’s to more humor, laughter, and fun in your life!