I believe one of the most important traits of effective communication is empathy—the ability to put yourself in the other person’s situation.
I think we can be creative in how we show empathy. I love a story told about Adlai Stevenson when he was campaigning for the presidency. He began the same way whenever children were much in evidence.
“How many of you kids,” he would ask, “would like to be a candidate for president?”
A large number of hands were raised. Then he would go on: “And how many presidential candidates would like to be like you kids?” And his own hand would shoot up. Immediately, he had connected with his audience.
I remember a professor friend of mine who on her sabbatical taught seventh grade for a year. Since some of her responsibilities at the university were to supervise middle school student teachers, this certainly helped her communicate teacher concepts for this grade level more effectively. She was reminded of what it was like to teach seventh grade.
In the famous painting, “Snowstorm, Steamboat Off A Harbour’s Mouth,” J.M.W. Turner is said to have had himself tied to the mast of a ship in order to observe such a storm first-hand. You can believe it when you study this painting.
Perhaps the most insightful observation of empathy was in a poem by Amy Maddox, who at the time of writing this was sixteen years old:
He prayed—it wasn’t my religion.
He ate—it wasn’t what I ate.
He spoke—it wasn’t my language.
He dressed—it wasn’t what I wore.
He took my hand—it wasn’t the color of mine.
But when he laughed—it was how I laughed, and when he cried—it was how I cried.