I have always been interested in the Emotional Intelligence competency of Empathy. Dr. Brene Brown, one of my favorite researchers, has a wonderful quote about Empathy: “Empathy has no script. There is no right way or wrong way to do it. It’s simply listening, holding space, withholding judgment, emotionally connecting, and communicating that incredibly healing message of ‘You’re not alone.’”
Most times when we think about practicing Empathy, we think of being there for someone in times of woe, loss, uncomfortable times, etc. However, I want to share with you what I think could be added to our “reach” of Empathy. Dr. Shelly Gable, of University of California, Santa Barbara, has researched about how important it is to respond to family, friends, colleagues, and acquaintances in times of their success with an active constructive response.
I heard Dr. Gable speak in Philadelphia, PA at the First World Congress of Positive Psychology. She shared videos of her graduate students “playing the parts” of various people in relationships and how they responded when hearing someone share a success they had: award, new job, accepted to graduate school, etc. One role-play in particular caught my attention. A wife returns home and shares that she just got into Columbia University for grad school. The husband remarks, “I thought you wanted to get into Stanford!” Immediately it was like a dark cloud hovered over their conversation. The wife was pleased with her accomplishment and the husband decided not to give her any positive response. The news is just squelched. What could he have said instead?
Dr. Gable shares that having an active constructive response builds relationships. You may be keen now to know how you can respond that way the next time you have a friend share their success. Here is how you can do that. Here is an example:
Friend 1: I feel a bit funny to tell you, however, I just received the Leadership Award at my work! I had no idea I would receive this recognition.
Friend 2: Oh, my gosh!! How exciting that you received that! I know how hard you have worked all year! You are always putting in that extra in everything you do at work. Let’s think…how are we going to celebrate this? Why don’t we go out for a special dinner! I am so happy for you!!
Do you see how Friend 2 acknowledged the success of the award, the hard work, and then added positive energy around the idea of celebrating? That is an active constructive response.
A few years ago when I learned of Dr. Gable’s work I decided that I thought that this recognition of success should be added to what we know as Empathy. In my view, we should be there for friends, family, colleagues, etc., not only in times of woe, but also in times of joy, success, and happiness.
To learn more about the work of Dr. Shelly Gable, I am sharing a chart that displays the various ways people usually respond to success of someone else. This is an excerpt from the book I co-authored with Heather Constantine, Conversing On The Real: Authentic Conversations About Living Plugged In. Here is the Gable Matrix:
The Gable Matrix—Expanding Empathy
Psychology professor Shelly Gable, PhD in her research on relationships found that there are four ways that people respond to shared good news of the success or accomplishment of another person.
The Gable Matrix below describes the various ways that we may choose to respond when someone shares good news with us. In the example, a close friend shares that he/she has just received an award.
|Active and Constructive
“You really deserve this award!! You worked so diligently! How should we celebrate your success?
(Nonverbal communication involves active emotional expression – maintaining eye contact, smiling and active listening.)
|Passive and Constructive
“This is nice news.”
(Nonverbal communication involves little to no active emotional expression.)
|Active and Destructive
“Gee now they are going to expect this of you all of the time. What pressure that is going to be for you. You are going to feel more stress after receiving this award.”
(Nonverbal communication involves displays of active emotional expression that counteracts the good news such as frowning, pouting, or furrowing of brow.)
|Passive and Destructive
“Are you going to the party tonight?”
(Nonverbal communication involves little to no active emotional expression such as limited eye contact, turning away from the person, and little to no acknowledgement of success.)
My take-away is this: We have a choice. We can either acknowledge the success, joy, happiness in our relationships by taking time to give positive energy, details of their success, and celebrate with them, or not be empathetic and lose out in a terrific opportunity for building relationships.
P.S. Yes, that is how important Empathy is. I had to capitalize it in this article since it is so important!!!
Gable, S. L., Gonzaga, G., & Strachman, A. (2006). Will you be there for me when things go right? Social Support for Positive Events. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91, 904-917