It has been said that empathy is the ability to understand and sense the emotions of another person. To "walk a mile in their shoes". If that's the case, then the lack of empathy in a business environment can be likened to walking around with no shoes at all in a dark room - you'll never truly connect with anyone. I think empathy is more than just the ability to sense emotions; it's the ability to view the world through another person's eyes. And the following story highlights how terribly un-empathetic I once was.
Back in 2001, I was working as the Director of Housekeeping at The Ritz-Carlton in Montego Bay, Jamaica, overseeing a team of over 100 Ladies and Gentlemen at the 430-room resort and golf course. Most of them lived many miles from the resort in a (very) rural area, and were picked up and brought to the luxurious hotel by a company bus each morning. I was once honored with an invitation to visit one of the villages where they lived, and was struck by the living conditions. Many of the homes had makeshift tin roofs, light bulbs hung on strings from the ceiling, and the floor was packed earth. So when our hotel IT department decided to upgrade all of the computer cables at the resort, and give away the old computer cables to the staff, I certainly never expected that anyone from Housekeeping would want one.
Yes, computer cables, the standard rubberized cable that connects your PC or laptop into the wall. They come in several colors, like blue, grey, red, and green. And when the replacement cables arrived, we suddenly had hundreds of meters of “old” computer cables, stuffed into cardboard boxes, and we were giving them away to anyone who wanted them.
One of my Room Attendants named Diane heard we were giving away computer cables, and came to see me to request one. And frankly, I found her request a bit odd. I had seen the village where she lived, and was quite certain she did NOT have a home computer or internet access. Actually, if memory served, she may not have even had running water. What could she possibly want with a computer cable? Did she intend to sell it? Did she have a friend somewhere in town that had a computer? The more I considered her request, the more skeptical and speculative I became. So, in the most polite way I could muster, I asked Diane if she knew what a computer cable was, and what it was used for. And her reply has stayed with me to this day.
She replied, “Yeah mon, I know what it is, but I want it because outside my house I have two small trees a few feet apart, and if I tie de cable between dem trees, it would make a strong clothesline for me to hang de laundry”.
That was the moment I realized just how narrow my worldview really was. All I saw was a leftover computer cable, but Diane saw a sturdy clothesline. I handed her an entire box filled with leftover cables and told her to take as many as she wanted. She took only one.
What was the lesson? Empathy is more than the ability to feel what another person feels; it is the ability to see what they see. And only when you can see through another's eyes can you genuinely "connect" in a way that fosters meaningful relationships. I still have a lot of work to do in this area, but that experience certainly gave me a push in the right direction.