Let's be honest, relationships can be hard. They can be complicated. They get messy. Whether it’s with a life partner, a child, a family member or a work colleague, our relationships can become filled with assumptions, expectations, and judgements.
Empathy gives us the opportunity to take a step back and create a space for connection and understanding. We show empathy when we become aware of and understand the needs and feelings that someone is experiencing.
- Listening, listening, listening
- Being fully present and allowing someone the time and space to express themselves fully and unconditionally
- Complete focus on other person’s experience, feelings and needs without distraction or preconceived ideas
- Seeking to understand the feelings and needs behind someone’s verbal and non-verbal language
- Silent connection
- Reflecting feelings gently when needed
Empathy is not:
- Offering solutions or trying to fix a problem
- Sympathising and feeling sorry for someone
- Giving advice or reassurance
- Judgement or criticism
- Defending or blaming
- Explaining your own feelings or opinion
- One-upping by sharing your own story or similar experience
- Correcting the person’s perception of what happened
Sometimes we react this way with the best of intentions, believing that we are empathising with someone.
Everybody wants to feel heard and understood
One of the most validating and empowering experiences for an individual is to be heard and understood by the important people in his or her life.
Sometimes we mistakenly read criticism and judgement into the words of those we care about and take things personally. We feel humiliated and rejected, which causes us to react defensively, creating a spiral of hurt and miscommunication.
Learning to empathise can help us to recognise the unmet needs that are behind their words and our reactions.
Empathy towards yourself
If you don't know how to show empathy to yourself, it can be very difficult to offer it to others. However, many of us don't understand what self-empathy looks like.
It starts with recognising and connecting to your own feelings and needs and then giving yourself compassion and understanding rather than judgement and criticism. A simple way to do this is to ask yourself:
1. What am I feeling right now?
2. What unmet need is underneath that feeling?
Here is an example:
“I yelled at my kids when I got home from work and I am such a bad parent!” versus “I want to show my children how happy I am to see them but I am exhausted and need a few quiet minutes to myself let go of my workday and become present here at home.”
Just becoming aware of your underlying feelings can help you understand your triggers, release blame and help you to take positive action to meet your needs and the needs of others.
In the above situation, self-empathy could look like apologising to your children for yelling and explaining that you need a few minutes to take a shower and then you would love to give them a cuddle and hear about their day.
Empathy towards others
Part of showing empathy to others is attentive listening without distraction and being totally present while you focus on the needs and feelings expressed through their words and body language.
There is also another important aspect - showing Active Empathy.
After a person has finished sharing, you can reflect back to them what you have heard them say. You could say: “It sounds like you….” This demonstrates your empathic desire to understand them completely.
Then you may enquire if there is anything else they would like to share. If they don’t have anything else to share, then you could enquire if you could ask them some questions. These questions provide an opportunity for the person to consider and identify what they may be feeling and needing.
What does empathy look like in real life?
In situations when someone is expressing strong emotions and shouting, criticising, or blaming, those are often the moments when they need empathy the most. However, that is often when their behaviour makes it the hardest time to show it to them!
When showing empathy to someone, it is important to remember:
1. You are not responsible for their feelings
2. It is not your responsibility to make them feel better
This can be very challenging. If we see people we care about in pain or conflict, we instinctively want to help them, to fix the problem so the bad feelings (theirs and ours) go away.
As we learn to show empathy to ourselves and others we will make mistakes. That's okay. Be gentle with yourself. Continue to practice the healing power of empathy. Listen to what you or the other person is experiencing, for the underlying feelings and needs. Genuine understanding and connection are built one conversation at a time.