When I started to write this post about empathy, I realized I’d already said just about everything I wanted to say on the subject in chapter 7 of my book, Practical Communication. So, here is an excerpt from that chapter. Enjoy!
Many people have heard that empathy is putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. This is a simple way of saying that we should try to see things from the other person’s perspective and try to understand how they feel—simple to say, but not as simple to do. Many of us try to be empathetic, but in doing so, we have a hard time getting out of our own shoes.
To empathize with another person means that for a moment we put aside our own feelings, values, and judgments, and try to take on those of the other person, so we can understand their situation. We need to listen to not only what people say with their words, but to what they’re feeling. Sometimes people express how they feel with words. However, in most instances, we have to listen to what the person’s voice and body language are telling us. To express empathy to others, we need to tell them what we understand what their words and nonverbals are telling us.
How many times in the past few weeks has someone you know expressed a need for empathy? Most of the time, people don’t open up and ask for it directly. A child comes home from school and slams down his or her books on the table. A coworker sits down at the desk next to us and lets out a heavy sigh. An employee jokingly remarks, “I sure hope I can get all this work done by tomorrow.”
All of these types of instances are opportunities to show others you’re paying attention—that you “hear” their need for understanding.
For example, Tom walks into the room, his shoulders are slumped, and he lets out a heavy sigh. We say, “Is everything all right?” To which he responds, “I guess … I just heard that Carl got the account executive position I applied for.”
What should we say next?
1. “That’s great. I’ll have to go congratulate him. He’s perfect for that job.”
2. “That’s too bad, but I don’t know why you wanted that job anyway, I would never have applied for it.”
3. “I’m really sorry, but I’m sure you’ll get the next AE job that opens up.”
The answer is, none of the above.
The first answer, although nice for Carl, completely ignores Tom’s feelings about not getting the job.
The second answer is common. In an attempt to make the person feel better about the job he didn’t get, we make a negative comment about the job. The problem with this response is that Tom wanted that job or he wouldn’t have applied for it. In our attempt to make Tom feel better, we’re really sending the message, “You were stupid to apply for the job,” and he may end up feeling even worse after talking with us.
The third example is apologetic and positive, but it doesn’t acknowledge what Tom said or how he feels. A response like this can often come across as a “brush off. ”
An empathetic response acknowledges a person’s words and feelings and demonstrates we’re really paying attention to what the other person is trying to communicate to us. It also lets the other person know that we’re interested in listening to their thoughts and feelings about the issue. Although Tom never says, “Hey, I’m upset I didn’t get the job. I really wanted it, and I need to talk to someone about it. Do you have time to talk?” His comments and nonverbal communication indicate he wants to talk about it. Otherwise, he would have remained silent.
To express empathy, we would paraphrase the words the speaker has expressed, including any emotions they’ve stated. If emotions aren’t stated but are implied through nonverbal communication, it’s important to paraphrase those as well.
Lynda:“Is everything all right?”
Tom:“I guess … I just heard that Carl got the account executive position I applied for.”
Lynda:“You sound disappointed. I know you really wanted that position. Do you want to talk about it?”
Empathizing with others isn’t easy. It takes good listening skills, the ability to read nonverbals—and the most difficult part of all—the ability to put aside one’s own thoughts and feelings about the situation. However, it is an essential tool for building good working and personal relationships. It is also one of the most important listening skills you can use to show others that you truly care about them.