Empathetic responses help to build better, more compassionate human relationships, and couldn’t we use more of that right now around the world? Christmas time is traditionally a moment to reflect on being kinder and more considerate of others, but surely, we need empathy all the year round?
“A true empath is a person who is sensitive and highly aware of the feelings of others around them to a point of taking the pain and agonies of others as their own,”Nereida Gonzalez-Berrios, MD.
Would you say you are an empath? A study from 2007 suggests that only a very small proportion (1-2%) of the population are. On the other hand, being empathetic is a positive psychological trait that makes you feel in tune with others, but still allows you to separate your experience from theirs.
Definitions of Empathy
What does empathy mean to you? There are many different definitions and I have provided a few here.
“Empathy is the capacity to understand and respond to the unique experiences of another. Empathy’s paradox is that this innate ability can be used for both helpful and hurtful purposes.” Arthur Ciaramicoli and Katherine Ketcham
“…entering the private perceptual world of the other & becoming thoroughly at home in it …., being sensitive, moment to moment to the changing felt meanings which flow in this other person………., sensing meanings of which he/she is scarcely aware, but not trying to uncover feelings of which the person is totally unaware since this would be too threatening……., communicating your sensings of his/her world as you look with fresh & unfrightened eyes at elements of which the individual is fearful………, frequently checking with him/her as to the accuracy of your sensings, and being guided by the responses you receive………, pointing to the possible meanings in the flow of his/her experiencing you help the person to focus this useful type of referent, to experience the meanings more fully and to move forward in the experiencing ” C.R Rogers
“Empathy is the ability to sense what the other is feeling; to detect their needs and desires; to see the world through their eyes rather than your own; to acknowledge his/her right to experience an emotion, even if you consider it inappropriate; and to communicate this through your words and actions. Empathy requires patience, sensitivity, openness, and trust. It cannot exist in the presence of threat or suspicion. The best way to develop and show empathy is to fully concentrate on listening.” Rex Johnson & David Swindley
Levels of Empathy
We are all different and some of us vary depending on the situation, or over our lifetime. It is important to know your inner empathy and to understand what the other person’s empathy level might be; without putting your wellbeing at risk. Consider the feelings we have when others are not empathetic.
If you think about a painful situation, (physically or mentally), you have been in and you have gone to someone for empathy, only to be given platitudes or their story, how did it make you feel? Just some of those feelings could be anger, feeling invisible, aloneness, frustration, belittled or sadness. These are strong emotions. If we feel like this, what might others feel if we are not empathetic?
Often, we are looking for an emotional plaster rather than an Elastoplast. The shock or humiliation of a fall/mistake is often more painful than the actual wound/outcome. Our ego needs healing. We need others to help us. Sadly, that help can be hard to find.
Benefits of Being Empathetic
Given how a poor empathetic response can make us feel, what are the benefits of providing it. Of course, if you are showing empathy, it needs to be genuine and for good intention. It is the key to so much. Here are a few examples.
- Increases compassion leading to improved working relationships.
- Helps remove barriers so you can have more effective conversations.
- Reduces stress for all parties, so things are calmer.
- Provides understanding of other people’s reactions and story, therefore better communication.
- Gives reassurance and helps confidence.
- Better motivation and empowerment, which can increase productivity.
- Less staff turnover with improved workplace morale – people feeling valued.
- Greater respect for you as manager.
- Spreads like a virus – the more you role model it, the more others will follow your lead
“Looking at the exterior we can convince ourselves that we understand the depths. Like the ocean – we cannot”A Ciaramicoli
Improve Your Empathetic Response
Given these benefits, there are some practical steps that can help you be more empathetic.
- Use more empathy yourself, so others do – by investing the time you reap the reward.
- Overcome any fear you may have of using it.
- Work on getting greater understanding – ask open questions.
- Really listen; not just to the words they say, but the meaning behind those words. Listen for what they are not saying.
- Give them time to verbalise their thoughts.
- Observe the body language – keep eye contact.
- Give every impression of “please go on, I am interested”.
- Listen to your own emotional reactions – what are you feeling?
- Make sure you give out the right body language
- Consider the person’s self-awareness – how much self-empathy do they have?
- Respond in a way that focuses on feelings & allows the flow of talk & emotions.
- Check your understanding – don’t assume you know what they mean.
- Reply in clear and comprehensible language that shows your understanding.
- Talk adult to adult – avoid making them feel inadequate, inferior, defensive, talked down to.
- Don’t project your emotions onto them.
- Remember that empathy and response are NOT the same. You can be empathetic without agreeing with them – e.g., whilst you might understand why they did what they did, it is still gross misconduct.
- Only give advice if required – encourage them to find solutions.
- Know your limits – set expectations for self and others as to where the boundaries are.
- Encourage the innate empathy in others.
- Use the outcomes of all this to make better decisions.
If you would like to reap the benefits of better working relationships within the boundaries of what is reasonable, then I recommend taking the time to consider how empathetic you are to yourself and others. You can then enjoy a more fruitful 2023.
If you would like to accurately measure your capacity for tolerance and empathy along with other traits, then contact me about the Judgement Index.
Also published on Medium.