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
Empathy is perhaps the single most powerful communication skill you can learn. Yet, there is a lot of misunderstanding about empathy and it is rarely practiced in a way that unleashes its full potential. Let’s start by getting a clear idea of what empathy is and how it is often misunderstood.
What is empathy?
Empathy is the ability to feel something similar to what another person is feeling. When you can come alongside another person and allow yourself to engage with their emotion it sends the message that you are truly listening and that you care about them.
Notice in the paragraph above, that empathy is described as the ability to feel “something similar” to what another person is feeling. It doesn’t say you know exactly how or what they are feeling. This is an important distinction.
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Let me first illustrate this difference by using a common situation to make the point clear. I will then apply the same idea in greater depth as it relates to parenting your child.
Imagine that you have recently lost a parent with whom you were close. You are only days beyond the shocking news of their abrupt passing. You feel overwhelmed with grief. One day a neighbor sees you outside and comes over to offer comfort by saying, “I heard about your mom and I’m sorry for your loss. I know just how you feel…I lost my mother last year and it was very difficult. It took me some time but I eventually got my feet back on the ground. I’m sure you will find the same will happen for you.”
If you are like most people in this situation, you face an immediate internal tug-of-war. Part of you recognizes the kind gesture on the part of your neighbor to reach out to you with concern. She wants to let you know that you are not alone; that others (like her) have experienced a similar grief.
But there is another part of you, more often the stronger part, that is internally screaming: “No, you don’t know exactly how I feel. How could you? You obviously don’t understand because you are assuming that your loss and recovery is the same as mine…”
But, instead of saying this to your neighbor, you politely smile, offer a subdued word of thanks and walk away feeling just as uncomforted, sad and lonely as before the interaction.
Genuine vs. Counterfeit Empathy
Was your neighbor’s disclosure of her own loss real empathy? No. It was a sincere effort but it was a counterfeit empathy. Why? It was lacking two essential ingredients for it to be genuine empathy.
First, genuine empathy is always initially focused on trying to understand what the other person is feeling and experiencing. In this case you were experiencing deep sadness and a heavy sense of loss. Your neighbor missed this because she was focused on her own experience, not yours. She assumed she knew how you were feeling so she didn’t inquire. Without intending to, she completely missed what you might have been feeling and how this might have differed from her own experience.
Genuine empathy is always initially focused on trying to understand what the other person is feeling and experiencing.
The second essential ingredient of empathy involves an openness to engage emotionally with the other person. Though you are not able to feel exactly what another person is feeling, nor do you try, you can allow yourself to feel something similar.
As ironic as it may seem, this emotion is actually coming from somewhere out of your own experience. Because you experienced something similar in the past, you are able to relate to and engage with the other person in their experience. The difference is that you keep the focus on their emotion. Your emotion acts as a bridge to more closely understand the other person’s emotion.
The tendency though is for each of us to turn the attention to ourselves, much like your neighbor did above. She started out saying she was “sorry for your loss” but the rest was about her. True empathy keeps a laser beam focus on the other person’s experience. This way you are able to listen deeply and communicate your genuine concern and care for them. If you are able to do this they will feel closer to you and cared for.
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