I have tangentially referred to empathy several times in this blog, but I haven’t really established what it is exactly. It is one of the foundations of the whole counseling profession, so having a working definition for it is, well, foundational. So what exactly is empathy? It is the ability to understand and share another person’s feelings, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Personally though, I prefer a different definition: the ability to connect your experience to the experience of another. In other words; when someone tells you something that they are going through, the empathetic response is to consider a time that you went through something similar, identify how you felt, and connect it to what you are hearing in order to understand the other person’s experience. If that wasn’t super clear because it was a run-on sentence, here is an info-graphic!
Let’s unpack this step by step.
Listen to Understand
The first step toward empathy is simple: Forget about responding to what the other person is saying. When we think more about what we are going to say that what the other person is saying, we lose out on truly understanding and depend on making assumptions about what they are saying. Stepping outside of this is what we in the business call Active Listening, which is listening with the intention of gathering information. Active listening is an engaged process, and there is enough to be said about it to fill it’s own book, let alone a blog post. But in a nutshell, focusing on what our conversation partner is saying will do more to make them feel heard than any solution you can come up with halfway through their sentence.
Build Your Understanding
This is a continuation of the active listening process. Basically, no amount of just listening will tell us everything about what is going on. It’s important to ask questions, but not just any question. Open-ended questions tell our conversation partners that we are interested in their thoughts and feelings. For the uninitiated, an open-ended question is a question that does not have a simple answer. “What do you think about the color of the sky?” has a more complex answer than “What color is the sky?”
Asking open-ended questions also tells our conversation partner that we are paying enough attention to know what questions to ask. If you ask “What color is the sky?” when they are talking about how their boss really hurt them, then it is obvious that you aren’t listening. So ask questions, and build your understanding.
Connect Your Understanding
After you have listened and asked some questions, you may find yourself being reminded of a time in your life when something similar happened to you. It doesn’t have to be on the same scale, but similar events cause similar feelings. For example, if your beloved pet was killed by a car, and you are talking to someone whose brother was killed in a car accident than you can relate those two experiences; even though they are very different. You might avoid mentioning that the reason you can relate to unexpected and traumatic loss is because your dog ran into traffic, but you can still sit in the pain with your conversation partner.
Express Your Understanding
This is a continuation of the connection. Once you have made a connection inside of yourself, share that understanding. Being able to both identify and express our understanding is what makes empathy happen.
Correct Your Understanding
Lastly, sometimes your understanding doesn’t connect. Maybe the emotion you felt when your dog died was the loss of a companion, while your conversation partner is facing a mortality crisis. This is okay. If your understanding doesn’t connect with their experience, try again! So long as you continue to listen with the intent to understand, you can rebuild, reconnect, and re-express your understanding until they know that you get it!
So this is empathy in a nutshell. Let me know what you think! I may try to do more info-graphics like this one in the future if enough people like it. Also, what are your experiences with empathy? Has there been a time when someone was able to really connect with you by listening and understanding? How about you connecting with someone else by listening? Let’s talk about it!
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