What is empathy? It is a key life skill and, when used, is amazingly powerful. The dictionary definition of the word empathy is: “The ability to share someone else’s feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in their situation.”
It is hardly surprising that many people have little awareness of empathy. It is a life skill that is not taught in school or college and is often lacking if a person did not learn it from their parents. It has never been a part of formal education. However, the good news is that it can be learnt.
When used correctly, empathy, like genuine praise or compassion, is immensely powerful and affirming for the recipient. It demonstrates understanding of the other person’s genuine concerns and aspirations. It shows care and support, and motivates people through difficult or uncertain times (particularly apt in the current economic climate)
Do not confuse empathy with “sympathy”, which involves whipping out a tissue when someone starts to cry, or comforting them when they are upset. Men, in particular, are scared of developing empathy skills in case it makes them look weak, and this, in turn, makes it more difficult for them to manage and interact with their others. The beauty of empathy is that it can be combined with a strong attitude to Life by engendering happiness and enthusiasm.
Top 10 tips to be more empathetic.
So, how does one learn empathy? The basis of empathy lies in good listening and good communication.
1. Give your full attention to someone and use your body language. For example, mirror theirs to show them that you are there with them and for them.
2. Having listened to what they have to say, synthesise their experience and reflect it back to them verbally, ideally using their own words: “So, you are feeling…”
3. Even if you believe from your map of the world that they are pathetic, try to see things through their eyes and from their map of the world.
4. Don’t judge, criticise, mock or blame them or use inappropriate humour such as sarcasm. This is the worst thing that you could do, especially if they are going through a difficult time.
5. Learn a wide range of adjectives, especially for feelings, so that you can better empathise, rather than using generic descriptors like ‘how awful’ or ‘how terrible’.
6. Practise using different ways of showing empathy, both verbally (like saying “that sounds really…”) and kinaesthetically (such as by touching their arm), remembering that different people will respond to different approaches.
7. Pair up with a friend, look at and absorb a picture and jot down notes. Next, follow them around, matching their movements and body language. Then look at the same picture again. This exercise will enable you to see the picture differently through their eyes.
8. Notice how good you feel when someone is empathetic to you. What do they say and how do they say it that makes it powerful?
9. Ensure that you are being empathetic rather than sympathetic, as the latter can come across as condescending when used in the wrong context (such as “you poor thing”).
10. Source neuro-linguistic programming tools (such as the Meta Mirror) which enable you to stand in other people’s shoes and look at things through their eyes.
Empathy is a wonderful skill that is very affirming to the recipient. Being understood and thought about is like oxygen. Acknowledging people, whether via empathy, feedback or praise, is all too often lacking in our lives: it costs nothing and gives so much.