If you are a leader, business owner or manager you are likely aware that your employees cannot maintain optimal focus and productivity if they are distracted by strong emotions. It makes no difference if their feelings are due to personal struggles or arise from a workplace conflict, the mind doesn't separate such things. Whatever the cause, emotions can throw us for a loop. Of course, the same can be said for your partner, child, friend, family member or anyone else in your life. Overpowering emotions are like the proverbial boulder in the river that changes the course and effortless movement of the water. All progress either comes to a halt or has to tentatively shift around the stone to get by. The problem is that if you try to deal with anger, resentment, jealousy or any strong feelings, head on, you could risk further inflaming the situation. In certain circumstances it may make more sense to try to diffuse the issue -- at least at first -- from a distance. As strange as that may sound, it can make a difference if you employ empathy as your secret advantage.

Empathy is not as much about being "nice" as it is about making positive and meaningful connections with people and it begins with the connection you have to yourself. Renowned life coach Martha Beck likens cultivating empathy to "emotional cardio." I love this metaphor as there are times when it feels like such an intense effort to offer kindness to those who challenge us. However, empathetic connection with a difficult person doesn't require special words or skills -- authentic compassion can be enough. But how do you care about someone who pushes all your buttons?

A method that I have been practicing for years, and one that we incorporate into our workshops is a specific form of mindfulness mediation called "Loving Kindness." It is regarded as an advanced practice, as it requires a fair amount of time, effort and patience to reap the benefits. The premise of the meditation is to direct kindness towards yourself and others, and eventually to direct it someone who tests you emotionally.

There are a few different versions of this meditation but they all lead to the same goal of fortifying your capacity to release judgment and support your ability to empathize.

Here are the steps to help get you started:

In a quiet space, take a deep breath, relax and sit in a comfortable position. Begin by directing kindness towards yourself. This is the essential foundation that will enable you to more genuinely offer love and compassion to others. When you truly accept and love yourself, you are in the optimum position to care for others without judgment.

Step One: Self

At this point, the exercise proceeds in a very structured, specific way. From your seated position, repeat the following slowly, twenty times, pausing briefly in-between each statement.

May I be well...May I be happy...May I be free...May I be at peace.

Step Two: Benefactor

After spending time directing loving kindness to yourself, you are ready to move on to someone who you deeply respect and appreciate. This person is known as your "benefactor" (such as a child, a spouse, a partner, a close family member.) Repeat the following slowly, twenty times, pausing briefly in-between each statement.

May [name of benefactor] be well...May [he/she] be happy...May [he/she] be free...May [he/she] be at peace.

Step Three: Beloved Friend

Next, you are ready to extend loving kindness to someone who is a beloved friend. This could be your childhood best friend, a mentor at work, or even your cat or dog. Whomever you select, you should find it relatively easy to direct loving kindness to this being. Repeat the following in the same manner prescribed:

May [name of beloved friend] be well...May [he/she] be happy...May [he/she] be free ...May [he/she] be at peace.

Once you have established this state of connection, it's time to dig deeper and direct loving kindness toward someone you may not even know -- and eventually to someone who challenges you. In this way you open up your limits and extend your capacity for empathy.

Step Four: Neutral Person

Think of a person who you feel neutral about -- neither liking or disliking. This is often an interesting point in the exercise, because it may be difficult to find somebody that you have no instantaneous judgment. If that is the case, recollect the face of a person you can recall from a trip to a grocery store or café. Someone you do not know at all, and therefore have very little emotional inclination toward. Again, you recite at least twenty times, the following, taking time to pause between each statement.

May [he/she] be well...May [he/she] be happy...May [he/she] be free...May [he/she] be at peace.

Step Five: The Enemy

After this, you are ready for the final segment -- directing loving kindness toward someone you have experienced conflict with. They may be someone who might conjure feelings of anger, fear, disrespect, or disdain. This person is somewhat dramatically labeled as "the enemy." This is a very powerful step in the exercise, because the enemy, or the person you have had difficulty with, stands right at the division between where you are now, and your capacity for empathy. At this point, conditional empathy unfolds into unconditional empathy. You will learn that emotional experiences do not have to be compromised by likes and dislikes. Similar to how the sun shines on everything -- empathy is truly boundless. It is born out of your freedom, and it is offered freely without strings or the emotional shackles typically associated with it. While carefully and intentionally visualizing this person of enmity, recite at least twenty times the following, taking time to pause for a couple of seconds between each statement. Use their first name.

May [he/she] be well...May [he/she] be happy...May [he/she] be free...May [he/she] be at peace.

Through the power of this practice, you cultivate equitable empathy toward yourself and all beings. Perhaps the most powerful realization is not the fact that you are capable of having the same positive feelings of acceptance and joy for strangers and difficult people that you do for your child, spouse, or best friend. Instead, sometimes the most powerful realization is how unnecessary all of the negative feelings we heap on ourselves truly are. The real power of harnessing empathy for others is in the ability to forgive and accept yourself.