Frequently Asked Questions about Tea & Empathy

"WTF is empathy actually? It’s quite the corporate buzzword these days."

More and more leaders are talking about empathy's pivotal role in relationship building, leadership, and effective management. This trend is promising, but often empathy is just a word that is dropped into mission statements without any resulting change in corporate culture. It’s a call to action that doesn’t always lead to much action.

There’s a lot of confusion about what empathy actually means. People define empathy in a number of different ways. As in “love,” there are many shades of empathy. In my writing and teaching, I think of empathy like this:

Empathy: The state of having curiosity about, and nonjudgmental engagement with, someone else’s emotional world.

In other words, it’s about being fully present with someone’s feelings without trying to change them.

It’s about offering your presence and attention, well before you suggest a strategy or offer advice. It’s about connecting with someone's experience and listening deeply in an attempt to understand them.

You’ll notice I include “curiosity” in my definition. I think curiosity is a prerequisite for empathy. We have to be curious about what someone else is feeling before we can engage and connect with those feelings.

"Aren’t some people just better at empathy than others?

Sure, I think some people are naturally better at empathy, just as some people are naturally better at music. But most of us can at least learn the basics of an instrument, even if we aren’t a prodigy. While it can take years of practice to master an instrument, most of us can learn to play "Mary Had a Little Lamb" on the piano in a couple of hours. Getting better at empathy, like getting better at music, is helped along by having good teachers and creating time for plenty of practice.

This is precisely why I created Tea & Empathy. I want to facilitate experiences wherein people can learn how to upgrade their empathy skills, both through receiving empathy and giving it to others. I offering these trainings because attendees tell me they feel awesome afterwards and that it helps them deepen their connection to the folks they love long after the workshop is over.

"Why do you call it Tea & Empathy?"

There are a few reasons why I picked this name. The first is simple: I love tea and I love empathy. I think they make good companions. Some of my most empathetic exchanges have happened over a pot of tea.

Secondly, it’s a play on “tea and sympathy,” a classic British expression that refers to offering kindness to someone in distress. I generally think that empathy is preferable to sympathy, so the upgrade is a little nod to that preference.

At the Tea & Empathy trainings I run, we start with tea for a reason. When we slow down to make ourselves a cup of tea, it helps us relax and prepares us to be present for the empathy part of the event.

The tea component is also a metaphor about self-care. It’s hard to show up for others if your own cup is empty. Tea & Empathy training events are designed to help you feel more empathized with so you have the bandwidth to be more empathetic to others. You get your own cup refilled so you can help fill others’ cups.

Empathy fatigue is a real thing, especially for people in the caring professions. When we constantly provide empathy to others but our own desire for empathy is chronically unmet, it can be emotionally draining and profoundly stressful. At Tea & Empathy events, everyone gets the opportunity to receive empathy from the group about something they choose to share.

Nope. You don’t have to share anything you’re not comfortable sharing. In fact, I say in the workshop that it’s not the right environment for sharing your deepest traumas. I’m not a therapist, and Tea & Empathy isn’t therapy nor a substitute for it.

What I will invite you to do is to tell a short story about something that feels emotionally alive in you. It might be something annoying that happened last week with a friend, or something frustrating that happened at work. It might be that embarrassing thing that happened three years ago, but you still find yourself talking about it.

But whatever you share, YOU choose to share it. Any sharing can feel vulnerable, but the intent isn’t to make anyone feel uncomfortable. You can share something as simple as, “I was late for work and it threw off my day.” Even small irritations can be connected to feeling not seen or not understood.

Tea & Empathy isn't a suffering competition, so don't feel embarrassed if the thing you share isn't "big" enough either. 

"Do I have to share my deep, dark feelings with strangers at a T&E event?"