“What would it be like to have some empathy for that guy?” I asked the teenage boy I was mentoring.
“Empa-what?!” was the golden response I received from him with a look on his face like he ate a sour lemon. Our conversation was about a kid that ‘everybody hated’ at his school that he had been bullying. Explaining empathy to a teenager is an exercise in patience and reframing, but the next time I talked to this young man he had walked up to that kid and had a conversation. My mentee walked away with a very different perspective.
So what the heck IS empathy?
According to the dictionary – “Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person.” This feels like defining the Titanic as “A boat,” – there is just so much more to it! I define empathy as “The super power you didn’t know you need, but magically makes everybody connect better with you.” I consider it one of the most important parts of communication (Understand who you are communicating with).
However, my definition doesn’t help you actually start practicing empathy – so let’s flesh out what it is a little better and get started using it.
I think it’s important early on to talk about what empathy isn’t. Empathy is not sympathy, although they get confused quite a bit. Sympathy is feeling pity for somebody’s circumstances. Pity is what I feel when I see a homeless person sleeping next to the creek when it’s cold outside. Sympathy is all about MY feelings and assumptions in the situation. I feel bad for them, I feel like they need help, I feel the desire to help them out because I am uncomfortable. The discomfort is within me and is present without me ever even talking to the other person. Sympathy has a tendency to make us want to fix a situation.
Empathy, on the other hand, is all about understanding that person’s emotions. It is the old cliche about ‘putting yourself in somebody else’s shoes.’ It means using all the experiences you’ve had in your life to understand the experience they are having. It’s a lot easier when you have a conversation with that person. Empathy isn’t about trying to fix anything, empathy is about trying to understand. The only action step involved in empathy is listening.
Why is it so important?
Empathy is so important because it gets us out of our own way when communicating with others. It doesn’t negate our views and beliefs, but it opens up a world of understanding inside you about the person you are interacting with. It makes them want to be more open and honest with you because ‘you get them.’ It also broadens your horizons, which is woo-woo speak for helping you to become a more whole human being. Once you can empathize with the people around you, you can’t help but be a better person. It’s a total win!
Great, I’ve got it! So how do I do it?
Start with a little perceptual position exercise to get the knack of it before heading out and practicing for real.
First I like to invite folks to do a little mental exercise. Imagine yourself in a conversation with somebody you know. You have all of your views and beliefs and behaviors, and they have all of their views and beliefs and behaviors. You are engaging in a conversation with this person from your point of view (it’s your voice, your body, etc). Imagine all the emotions, beliefs, body feelings that you would have in this conversation.
Now, switch it. Step out of yourself and step INTO the other person. Imagine the conversation through their eyes, their voice, their body. Imagine all the emotions, beliefs, and body feelings that they would have from their side of the conversation. That’s the start of empathy!! If you imagine you and this person getting in an argument, what do you imagine the other person is feeling? They aren’t thinking “I’m wrong and that super smart beautiful person across from me must obviously be right because the angels sing when they speak.” They are probably thinking “I’m right, because of x,y,z. That person is obviously ignorant.” or something similar.
If you are a visual learner watch this video on perceptual positions. What we are talking about is the ‘2nd position’ they talk about. The 3rd position would be where we take an outside observer’s role in the conversation and is immensely useful for resolving a conflict.
Once you’ve got the idea, go have a conversation with an actual somebody, in real life. Don’t do anything different in the conversation, but once you are done replay the whole thing in your head as if you were them. See if you can get a feeling for what their experience was. Replay their body language and see if it holds any clues about what they were feeling. Pay attention to the tone of their voice, what does it tell you?
Practice this often, and once you are comfortable you can start to bring some of this into the actual conversation to see how it lines up. During the conversation, put yourself in their shoes (not literally, that’s awkward) and then ask them questions to find out if you are on the right track. Questions like “How does that make you feel?” or “What’s that like?”
Next up – move to the big leagues – reflect their experience without asking the questions. An example of this would be saying things like “You are feeling…..” or “It sounds like you want…” These simple reflections will generally light people up and they will either say “YES! Exactly!” or they will clarify for you “No, it’s more like…” Either way, you start to build your empathetic compass. If they are agreeing often with your reflections then you have the hang of it, and if not you’ll probably want to keep practicing before you feel comfortable ‘being in their shoes.’
After doing this for a while notice how your relationships with people are doing. The people that you are empathetic with will probably feel like better friends, co-workers, or associates. You’ll feel like a mental judo master, and all your communications will start to feel more natural, more meaningful, and more interesting.
Some other great resources for empathy: