Empathy is perhaps the single most important relational skill. Empathy is the ability to put yourself in somebody else’s shoes and understand how they might be feeling in a given situation. The ability to listen empathetically – relating to and understanding the perspective, position and feelings of others – is a tremendously important capability in both personal and professional relationships.
We don’t need to have had the exact same experience or scenario in life to empathize with somebody else. As human beings, we all experience similar feelings of joy, sadness, loss, love, fear, loneliness, pride, shame, guilt, relief, and elation. If we listen in a way that allows us to relate to that common feeling or human experience, we can improve our connections and shared understandings with others.
Empathy does not involve judgment, criticism, opinion or problem solving. We can not change or control other people’s feelings. Instead, we can help them work through their feelings by letting them experience being heard and validating their emotional responses.
Sometimes people appear to have a larger emotional response than is appropriate to the situation at hand. This is because the event has tapped into a well of feelings from past/similar experiences. Their response may seem excessive or dramatic, but feelings are never “wrong.” They are normal responses to a person’s nature and nurture.
Verbalizing empathy allows the people in our lives to feel heard, known, understood and connected to us. It can diffuse conflict as once people feel heard, they may not feel the need to become increasingly defensive or aggressive to get their message across.
As part of the human condition, we can all become self-absorbed at times and tend to look at things from our own perspective. Consciously stepping outside of ourselves and putting ourselves in the experiences of others (similar to identifying with a character in a movie) can increase our awareness and improve our relationships.
Empathy is a skill that can be developed. So, let’s practice:
Situation: Your girlfriend is crying and tells you she is upset that her boss reprimanded and criticized her in front of her peers.
“Don’t let it get you that upset. You shouldn’t feel that way.” (Invalidating)
“You just need to get a new job already. I keep telling you that.” (Problem solving, impatient)
“Well, what did you do? Did you deserve it?” (Unsupportive, blaming)
“That’s too bad. What’s for dinner?” (Under-responsive, self-centered)
“It’s not that big of a deal. At least you didn’t get fired.” (Minimizing)
“Is it your time of the month or something?” (Infuriating)
“I wouldn’t care if that happened to me. I would just shake it off.” (Comparing to oneself, not helpful)
“You are too sensitive.” (Critical)
“Gosh, I am so sorry that happened.” (Sympathetic and caring)
“That was really unprofessional and uncool of your boss. It is completely understandable that you are upset. I know how hard you work and how invested you are in your job.” (Validating)
“That must have been embarrassing and uncomfortable. I imagine you feel frustrated, mad and disempowered.” (Empathic, recognizing and honoring the feelings.)
“I felt similarly when my mom criticized me in front of my brothers or friends. It was humiliating and enraging.” (Relating and normalizing, as long as comments are kept brief and you don’t hijack the conversation and make it about yourself)
“What do you think would help you feel better about it? What do you need? How can I help?” (Supportive)
Empathy is a work in progress. I sometimes (annoyingly, I’m sure) coach my husband in a flowery voice on what empathic response I desire from him, “Oh, my beautiful wife who I love and appreciate so very much, I can completely understand why you are mad that I forgot to do the ten things you asked me to do…” To see what that must be like for him, check out this humorous skit on empathy in relationships! Click here
Keep empathy in the forefront of your mind as you relate to others, and watch your relationships improve!
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Last reviewed: 28 Jul 2013