23 Nov Use This Skill to Create Deeper Connection With Others
There is not a day that goes by that I do not practice the skill of empathy. Outside of basic skills like reading, writing, and using the calculator on my phone, I can’t think of the last time I learned a skill that I have found so tremendously useful. I had no idea that empathy was even a skill for most of my life. For years, I thought it was simply something that I felt, with no understanding of how to communicate it with others. I can now see that feeling empathy doesn’t do anything for the person I am feeling it for.
In the words of Maya Angelou:
“I think we all have empathy. We may not have enough courage to display it.”
Empathy allows for more meaningful and deep conversations with my friends and family. At work, it helps me to connect authentically with clients, and to understand and work collaboratively with my coworkers. It wasn’t something I learned until I took a course in counseling skills. I clearly remember thinking: How am I just learning this now?
Although an important skill in the counseling process, it also seems like an important skill for being in any kind of relationship with another. According to Carl Rogers, the founder of person-centred therapy, empathy is one of the core conditions that must be present in the therapeutic relationship for growth to occur. I was almost surprised how effective this skill was when I started working with children and youth, but perhaps most surprising was how it has helped to transform all of the relationships in my life, not just ones where I was in a helper role.
Empathy Can Rescue Us From Loneliness
What exactly is empathy? Empathy is defined as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of others.” To expand on this definition, I’ll lean on a description by Carl Rogers:
“Empathy is a special way of coming to know another and ourself, a kind of attuning and understanding. When empathy is extended, it satisfies our needs and wish for intimacy, it rescues us from our feelings of aloneness.”
I’ve read my fair share of articles touting the importance of empathy. I am hoping if you’ve come this far in my article I don’t have to convince you that it is important and that every nook and cranny in the world could use more of it. I’m going to present this skill in three steps, just as it was presented to me in school. You may, like me, think that it sounds pretty easy. I urge you to practice. I was astonished at how uncomfortable and difficult it felt for the first few months but I do promise you, like most things, it gets easier with practice.
Step 1: Don’t Be Like Most People
In the famous words of Ernest Hemingway:
“When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.”
This is probably not the first time you have heard about the importance and the power of active listening. If you are going to have any success with steps 2 and 3, you have to start listening. I know it is tempting to think about what you are going to say next or what you are going to make for dinner later that day, but there is no way that you can practice empathy if you are not present for what someone is saying.
It is also important to listen non-judgmentally. It is normal to judge so if you feel judgment creeping in while someone else is speaking, gently acknowledge it and your humanity. From there, try to bring yourself back to being present for the other person. Remember that listening can be more than just taking in the words coming out of their mouth, it can also be paying attention to their facial expression and body language.
Step 2: The Importance of Feelings
Can you pick up on what someone is feeling when they are talking to you? This is where it can get tricky, especially for some of us. This next step involves a “reflection of feeling” and it simply means that we reflect back to the other person what we perceive them to be feeling. To provide an example, let’s go through an example that I am sure most of us can relate to. You are talking to your friend and your friend’s partner of 5 years just broke up with them. Your friend is coming to you because they are in pain and they trust you. What do you say?
You may be tempted to give advice or to tell them that everything is going to be okay. If you can, try to imagine what it feels like to be in a great deal of emotional pain and for someone to give you advice or tell you everything is going to be okay. It doesn’t feel great, does it? It can feel dismissive and condescending. Yet, it can be difficult to know what to say in these moments.
A reflection of feeling would go something like this, depending on what it is that your friend tells you, “you feel blindsided,” or “I imagine the pain is unbearable right now, it must feel like you are drowning.”
Step 3: The Importance of Understanding
With a reflection of feeling we tap into the emotional context of what someone has just said to us, but what about the content itself? We want to ensure that we understand what they communicated to us, and this can be especially difficult if we are listening to someone who is rambling or speaking quickly. I find, for me, this is where the listening comes in. If someone is going on about something and I’m finding it hard to follow, I find the land of my imagination to be an irresistible place to wander to.
It is important to recognize that paraphrasing is not parroting. Parroting is essentially just repeating back to someone what they just said. To provide an example, imaging that you are sitting with someone for lunch and they share the following with you:
“I have just had a lot on my plate. Everything has been so hectic in our household. My partner has been sick and my kids are just going through this phase and I feel like I don’t get a minute to myself in the day. I don’t think they notice how much I do. Work has been stressful. It’s like nothing I am doing is good enough and my boss seems to be disappointed. By the time I get home, I just don’t have a lot left in me and I can’t be the partner and parent I want to be. I just don’t want to keep going like this.”
A paraphrase could go something like this, “You are experiencing competing demands with work and at home and you aren’t sure how much longer you can hold it all together for.”
Putting it All Together: The Empathy Statement
An empathy statement is where you put all of it together by combining a reflection of feeling and a paraphrase. The point of using an empathy statement is not to help the other person or to provide them with guidance. It is simply to listen to what they are saying and let them know that you heard them. For those of you who appreciate a simple formula, it might go something like this:
Reflection of feeling + paraphrase = empathy statement
To provide an example, let’s say that you are having a conversation with someone who is explaining to you that they are struggling to find a job and they aren’t sure how they are going to make ends meet for that month. Again, you may be tempted to give advice or put their worries at ease, but let’s try an empathy statement instead. You may say something like, “you are feeling uneasy because despite doing everything you can, you aren’t in the financial situation you need to be in to feel safe.”
When I was first learning how to practice empathy we had to use the formula and I will admit, it was rather awkward at first. It was even a bit tough for me to accept my level of discomfort with the empathy statement meant that I wasn’t overly accustomed to practicing empathy. For years, I had identified as an empathetic person yet I was lacking the basic skills to communicate my empathy with clarity and grace.
I want to believe that we all want to be more empathetic. We know what it feels like to feel seen and heard by another person and sadly, it is not something that we get to experience every day. When we do experience it, however, it can feel as though someone else understands and appreciates us in a deep and profound way. As wonderful as it is to be on the receiving end of empathy, the incredible thing is that it is a gift that we all have the power to give.