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Empathy: Your Most Potent Skill For Building Closer Relationships

Gary Gilles is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor in private practice for over 20 years. He is also an adjunct faculty member at the University ...Read More

Most of our interactions with people, even loved ones, involve the exchange of information. Some of this information is not only necessary but vitally important in order to run a household, business or just keep in touch with those around us. But, in our busy lives virtually all of our communication, including those most important to us, can be reduced to quick handoffs of data about events, times and tasks. This leaves our minds buzzing with facts but our hearts lonely and hungry for a deeper connection.

The lost ability to listen deeply

Empathy can cut through that emptiness and give you a relational connection like nothing else. Empathy is a skill that enables you to feel something akin to what another person is feeling. When you practice empathy you put your own feelings, facts and stories aside and intently focus on what the other person is experiencing.

The art of empathy is rarely practiced today because everyone loves to talk about themselves. If you don’t believe me, just listen in on a conversation the next time a few friends gather. It’s more like a game of competing stories where each person tries to trump the person before them. Here’s a brief example of how the conversation often flows:

Jane: Did your mother ever get out of the hospital after her fall?

Sally: Yes, just last week. She’s been staying with me until she gets stronger and the stress of caring for her constant needs is pushing me to my limit.

Jane: I know exactly how you feel. When my mother had surgery last year I was over at her house every day for a month. I was totally worn out by the time it was over.

On the surface, Jane’s response to Sally sounds like empathy, right? She says, “I know exactly how you feel.” But this is not empathy. It often passes as an empathic response but it is a counterfeit. First, Jane assumes she knows how Sally is feeling but doesn’t ask. Second, Jane turns the focus of the conversation away from Sally’s struggle to her own caregiving experience. In the process, Jane’s struggle gets lost.

Getting emotionally inside another person

Empathy is a willingness to get inside other people; to look at life through their perspective. You’re not just gathering information – you’re trying to get inside their skin as much as possible to feel their emotions and understand their frames of reference. Being empathetic can be difficult. But empathy is one of the most powerful skills you can use to foster close relationships. And with effort and practice, you can see rapid results.

By learning these three principles, you can begin practicing empathy:

  • Listen for the emotion
  • Reflect what you hear
  • Probe for context

Listen for the emotion

Almost any time a person makes a statement about something significant, an emotion is attached to it: joy, contentment, anger, sadness or any number of other feelings. When we tell a story, the emotion is the core of what we want people to know about us. But often, we don’t know our feelings well enough to express them clearly. So we focus on details of events and hope that someone might listen deeply to help us make sense of the emotions that we can’t.

As a listener who wants to practice empathy, your goal is to cut through the details and ask yourself, “What is this person feeling, and what is that feeling connected to?” In the excerpt from Jane and Sally’s conversation, Sally said, “… the stress of caring for my mother’s constant needs is pushing me to my limit.” Can you hear the emotion in this statement? Empathy begins with picking up on this emotion and tuning in.

Reflect what you hear

When you are in a conversation with someone who is expressing emotion, try using this simple formula as a way of reflecting back the emotion you hear: Say, “You feel [insert the emotion you are hearing from them] because of [a particular event or situation].”

Had Jane listened more carefully and heard the emotion she could have said, “It sounds like you’re feeling overwhelmed (emotion) with the added demands of caring for your mom right now (situation).” Jane might have responded by saying, “You know, that is exactly how it feels: overwhelming. I had enough on my plate before this happened and now I’m struggling to just keep my sanity day to day.”

When you reflect back to people what you hear them say, you not help them clarify their own feelings, but you also communicate that you’re listening deeply. This is the heart of empathy: deep listening and reflection show you care enough to understand their situation.

After you’ve communicated that you hear the emotion behind their words, and the person you’re listening affirms that you’re on target, you’re ready to understand the larger context.

Probe for context

Once you’ve reflected back the emotion you are hearing you can work to understand the bigger picture of how the emotion plays out.

Probing is simply a way to understand the larger context of how the person is affected by the situation and the accompanying emotion. Let’s return to the conversation between Jane and Sally. Jane reflected back to Sally that she seemed overwhelmed and now wants to understand more about that feeling. Jane could ask Sally,

  • How is this feeling of being overwhelmed affecting you at home and on the job?
  • How are you coping with these challenges?
  • Do you have support to help you through this period?

Notice that the continued focus of probing is still on the emotion and not about peripheral details. Jane is not asking about the details such as her mother’s condition, the prognosis or what types of caregiving tasks she performs. Those details are relevant to discuss but not when the emotion is front and center. Stick with the emotion, which is the central issue of empathy.

Watch your reactions

Practicing empathy requires discipline. When people tell you they’re struggling, hurt or angry, the natural response is to offer advice to try to fix the situation. But most often, what people want is just to be heard, and to know that someone cares.

You may also feel an urge to inject your own opinions or tell your story. But resist this tendency when you’re trying to empathize. It will only divert you further from the other person’s emotion. It may feel safer to discuss more remote topics but it won’t feel as satisfying as entering into the emotion with them.

Finally, remember that when you practice empathy, you’re inviting people to be vulnerable. Treat what they say with sensitivity and care. Don’t make judgments. When you let people speak honestly, and when you listen deeply and offer acceptance for other people’s struggles, you give a gift far more valuable than any advice you could offer.

Keep Reading By Author Gary Gilles, LCPC
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