Feel the Power of Empathy

There’s no substitute for experiencing the power of empathy for yourself.

If you’re just starting out with practicing the specific skills of giving and receiving empathy in your relationships, then a few recommendations to start before I offer a specific practice below:

  • Check in with yourself to make sure you are resourced.  Tired?  Worried? Stressed?  Busy?  Then probably not the best time to practice giving empathy.
  • Ease. We don’t learn to play tennis on center court at Wimbledon, right?  I’d recommend you start practicing in a relationship in which you experience trust and care overall, and at a time when you and the other person feel ease with each other.  It takes practice and a variety of complementary skills (e.g., emotional regulation) to give and receive empathy in times of upset and conflict.
  • Be gentle.  Be gentle with yourself.  When I first started putting empathy into intentional practice, I hesitated and stumbled.  I started trying to fix or giving advice, and then I caught myself.  Please don’t judge yourself or beat yourself up about feeling unskilled at first or feeling awkward.  You can become proficient at these skills.  And feeling awkward and ‘making mistakes’ is a typical path to proficiency.
  • Be transparent.  It may be helpful to share with the other person that you’re learning and practicing new skills.  “I’m trying some new ways to be more present and to listen, so you may notice that I’m showing up differently in our conversation.  If so, that’s probably what it is.”

The invitation for today is to give it a try in a relationship in which you feel ease, trust, and care.  If you can’t connect in person, then second best would be a medium that allows for video.  If neither are possible, then voice only is fine too (e.g., you won’t be able to show interest and engagement with body language but you can indicate it with verbal cues and tone of voice).

The Practice

It’s pretty simple …

  • Ask the other person to share about something that’s important to them now.  It may be helpful to set a time limit with something like “Hey, I have 30 minutes, would it be alright if we end by [whatever time that would be]?”
  • When you are listening, notice if you are feeling any tendencies to interrupt. Notice if your mind is using any of its resources to plan what you might say next.  When you notice these distractions to listening, gently remind yourself something like “I really want to try to understand what is important to them.”  Often, that reminder is enough to re-focus you back to listening and really trying to understand.
  • When there is a natural pause in the other person’s sharing, or when you feel like they have shared enough to where it would help you to confirm your understanding so far before progressing further, reflect back what they said.  In reflecting back, keep it as brief as possible, don’t focus on everything that was said or the exact words, instead guess about what is most important to them.  It may sound something like “From what you just shared, I’m guessing that [fill in what you think may be most important to them] is really important to you.”
  • At the end of the conversation, thank the other person for sharing with you.  And asking them how this conversation felt to them.  Did it feel different than usual?  Did it feel connecting?  Did they feel understood?  Did they feel your presence and focus?
  • After the conversation, pause to reflect on how it felt to you.  How did it feel?  What went well?  What was challenging?  What did you learn?

An Example

In addition to the instructions above, it helps me to see a concrete example so here goes …

The other person shares: The other person says something like “What’s top of mind these days is what’s going on at work.  There’s a lot of change and uncertainty.  They decreased the size of our department so now I am responsible for some roles I have not played in years.  I am pretty rusty at them.  And it’s really hard.  I feel overwhelmed by the amount of work and am struggling to keep up.”

There is no one ‘right’ way to reflect back what someone says.  Naturally, it will be a product of you.  But as an example in this case …

A reflection:  A reflection might sound like “What you described sounds like a lot of change.  I’m guessing for you what’s most important is finding more ease, competency, and predictability amidst the changes at work.  By predictability, I mean whether or not the current way your department functions will stay this way or not.  Am I understanding you somewhat or did I miss anything?”

A couple of important items to highlight in the response above:

  • The reflection is offered as a guess by the “I’m guessing …” preface.  That phrasing or some variant of it helps the person know that you are not trying to tell them what their experience is.  Another option that works well is “I really want to understand you. Let me try to say back to you what I heard from you about your experience and I’ll use different words.  You can tell me if I fits with your experience or not.”  This approach honors their experience and makes understanding & connection the explicit goals of the conversation.
  • Ending with a request for confirmation such as “Am I understanding?  Did I miss anything?” underscores the intention of understanding.  An amazing thing is that even if your guess does not feel accurate to the other person or there was some misunderstanding of what they said, it still feels connecting to the other person that you tried to understand!  And most often they will try again to help you understand.  A really beautiful thing that might happen is when the other person says something like “I did not know what mattered to me until I got clarity from hearing what you just said.  Thank you for that.”

In future articles, I’ll share more details & practices of ways to listen for what matters most and for how the other person may be feeling.

In the spirit of community and sharing, we’re stronger together and others may benefit from your experiences.  If you’re up for it, share how this practice felt in the comments below.  And if you need support, reach out to me.