Empathy. A seemingly straight-forward word elucidating images of a person reaching out to console their friend who has just received bad news, a counsellor nodding her head in agreement with a statement made regarding the injustice of losing her job, a partner saying “I’m sorry to hear that” when you tell him you’re having a shitty day.
Empathy assumes that we have the ability to understand what it might be like for you.
How could I possibly know what it might be like for you? I haven’t walked in your shoes throughout your life, haven’t seen the ups and downs through the lenses of your glasses, and haven’t experienced the love and hurt and pain you’ve felt. We sometimes bandy the word “empathy” around believing it to be an easy destination to reach, though empathy is one of the most challenging behaviours to grasp and display.
I’ll share an example of how difficult empathy can be from one of my couples counselling sessions. In one of their early sessions with me, this couple was disagreeing about how to make up after an argument. One partner felt the only way to truly show remorse and attempt resolution was to purchase an expensive gift. The other partner believed the only way to show remorse was to sincerely express an apology. Neither partner would shift from their fixed beliefs about how to repair damage in a relationship, so in essence there was no middle ground or compromise reached, no display of empathy for the other partner, and instead an agreement was made to just do what the other party wished for, despite the discomfort it produced within.
So how can I be empathic?
From my perspective, empathy is a choice. We choose to attempt to understand how it might be for you. I don’t believe this is something that comes as naturally as we may first believe.
Something to try next time you are chatting to a friend about a topic you disagree on is:
• Notice what thoughts and emotions arise for you when your friend starts talking about their perspective on a topic, for example “oh no not this again” or feeling bored or angry.
• Ask yourself whether these thoughts and emotions are helpful for understanding your friend, or may be getting in the way of empathy
• Feed back to your friend what you believe they are saying (a technique known as reflective listening), for example: “what I’m hearing is that you feel really passionately about buying locally grown produce…”
• Seek clarification from your friend to check out whether your understanding is in line with their perspective: “…would that be correct?”
• Continue actively listening in this way until you get a sense that you have validated your friend’s opinion, beliefs, thoughts, feelings and ideas.
What might get in the way?
From my experience working with clients, one of the biggest hurdles standing in the way of empathy is that in most conversations we engage in, it feels more like a series of monologues than a real dialogue, because we tend to think up what we want to say next which detracts our attention (and mental capacity) to truly listen to our friend.
Where can I learn more?
I highly recommend Daniel Goleman’s book “Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ”.
If you would like some one-on-one coaching around emotional intelligence and effective communication skills, contact me for further information on how my health coaching program will transform you and help you reach your goals: firstname.lastname@example.org