Empathy. So Powerful But Often Misunderstood

Empathy.  So Powerful But Often Misunderstood

We all know showing empathy is an important part of building effective relationships, right?  We’ve also all heard empathy is not the same as sympathy. Most of us even know it is a better interpersonal communication choice than sympathy.  But do we really know what empathy is, how to extend it, and perhaps more importantly what it is not?

This week someone very dear to me lost a loved one.  My heart aches for her, and I desperately wish there was something I could do or say that would somehow be helpful, somehow lessen her pain.  Unfortunately, I’ve caught myself (twice now) saying things that are not helpful at all.  Almost as soon as the words came out of my mouth, I realized “that” was better left unsaid.  I have struggled with what to say – which is a bit ironic, as an Emotional Intelligence specialist. We teach what we need to practice…so they say.

Yesterday I had the opportunity to sit-in as one of my associates delivered our ½ day Emotional Intelligence workshop.  Boy did I get some great reminders about empathy!  So good in fact, I’d like to share a few of the points with you.

What is empathy? The late Marshall B. Rosenberg, PhD., gave a succinct definition in one of our favorite books, Nonviolent Communication, A Language of Life:

Empathy is a respectful understanding of what others are experiencing.”

Sounds simple enough, but simple to understand is not always so easy in application.  Sometimes it is helpful to understand what something is not, in order to truly understand what it is.

Empathy is not:

  • Fixing
  • Advising
  • Analyzing
  • Reassurance
  • One-Upping
  • Educating
  • Shutting Down
  • Interrogating
  • Explaining
  • Justifying
  • Correcting

This week, as I tried to console my friend, I caught myself reassuring, trying to fix, and even one-upping.  That’s hard for me to admit, but it is true none-the-less.

So what is the “right” way to offer empathy when people around us are hurting, angry, sad, confused, frustrated, embarrassed, or any of the other host of “negative” feelings?  If we have the presence of mind to thwart our initial reactions, in favor of choosing our response, it isn’t so hard.

The Center for Nonviolent Communication teaches us four actions to employ, in order to practice empathy (paraphrased):

  1. Observe what is happening
  2. Listen for feelings
  3. Listen for the needs behind the feelings
  4. Share what you think you understand, and ask if your understanding is correct

These four steps allow people who are experience negative emotions to feel heard and understood. When we feel heard and understood, our strongest negative emotions often diffuse – even if temporarily. These steps also help the one hurting identify what he really needs, which may help you discern whether there is anything you can “do right now” to help.

Often, the very best thing you can do when others are hurting is just be quietly present. Brene’ Brown, in her TedTalk on Empathy, gave a wonderful example of words that may help you in the moment: “I don’t know what to say…but I’m so glad you told me.”  So simple; so powerful.

When people share their feelings with us, they are putting themselves in a vulnerable position.  Try to honor that vulnerability by respectfully understanding what they are experiencing.  When you do, you will know you have expressed empathy.

Call or email us today for more information on practicing Emotional Intelligence.