Empathy is about standing in someone else’s shoes, feeling with his or her heart, seeing with his or her eyes. Not only is empathy hard to outsource and automate, but it makes the world a better place.
Daniel H. Pink
Empathy is more than a word in a quote posted to someone’s Facebook page in an attempt to be poetic. It’s a key ingredient in fostering loving and caring relationships. Being able to experience a situation from someone else’s point of view is a requirement for creating intimacy.
EMPATHY: A VALUABLE LIFE SKILL
Even outside a romantic context, it is a valuable life-skill. At all levels, empathy can help you diffuse volatile arguments and turn them into constructive discussions for the purpose of solving problems. It is a two-way street that will help to put aside misunderstandings and conflict.
When we are open to our feelings and listen deeply to others, we will have an empathic response. Science has proven through brain mapping techniques that we are all capable of empathy—even if other conditions such as autism add to the challenge.
Sounds easy enough, and it’s a valuable life skill…so why can we find it to be so hard? In short, because many of us were never taught how to listen with someone else in mind.
7 CHARACTERISTICS OF EMPATHIC LISTENING
1. Listen in a focused and deep way so that you hear the full meaning of what is being said. This means letting go of your point of view, at least for the moment, so that you have room inside your mind to hear and see something from a different point of view.
2. Concentrate on what is being said. To be able to listen in such a concentrated way, you have to suspend thinking about how you are going to respond. Your full concentration and focus is on what the other person is saying.
3. Tune into feelings without being overtaken by them so that you can understand how someone else feels and why they feel that way. When you tune into feelings, you do not cry because they are crying or get wrapped up in their anger. You are there to notice that they are angry or sad and acknowledge it, not to yell or cry with them.
4. Look at the person. Turn toward them, look at the expression on their face and the position of their body. Much of what we feel is expressed physically. See what they are feeling.
5. Reflect back what you hear the other person say to you and what feelings you think they experienced. Paraphrase, rather than repeat word-for-word. Do not interpret or add your own value judgments—this is a genuine attempt to convey that you hear and care about what they are experiencing, even if you do not agree.
6. Ask the person if you heard what they said correctly and if you “got” what they are feeling. You are attempting to experience the event through the others eyes and heart.
7. Use similar language as the person talking. This is an important way that the person feels heard, accepted and understood.
Empathy gives us the ability to listen in a way that we can understand others, share in a moment and respond to them in such a way that the other feels they have been seen, heard and understood. As you learn to listen in this deep way, you will be able to respond in a way that is respectful and supportive. In this way, trust will grow, and with trust, love will grow.
We have the capacity for empathy, but that is not enough. We have to learn, experience and practice to develop this skill.
Maya Angelou summed it up best when she said,
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”