Learning Empathy: Some Concrete Suggestions

01/28/2014

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. This is an important skill because it allows us to connect with other people at a deeper level, thereby making empathy one of the cornerstones of a healthy relationship. However, despite its importance for both personal happiness and the success of the human race, empathy often seems to be in short supply. Why is that?

Many people are shocked to discover that there is a genetic component to empathy. Some researchers suggest that empathy is two-thirds genetic and one third learned. If true, this means that there is a huge continuum of empathy stretching all the way from someone who was born without empathy and never learned it (thereby having none) to someone who was born with all two-thirds of the gene and who was taught it (thus having an amazing capacity for empathy). This would explain a lot.

However, the most important point we can take from that research is that empathy can and should be learned. And this is where I think we have fallen down on the job. In a world filled with conflict, empathy doesn’t seem to be a priority and it especially isn’t something a lot of parents, teachers or cultural leaders are advocating. Yet, if we are to thrive, we need to work harder to teach people how to be empathic towards others. Toward that end, I thought I’d give a basic primer on empathy.

There are four basic skills for showing & getting empathy:

  1. Knowing how you feel and being able to separate that from the feelings of others.
  2. Putting yourself in the other person’s place (perceived empathy).
  3. Expressing your sense of understanding.
  4. Knowing you are being understood (received empathy).

Example: Your good friend complains constantly about her husband and children. You realize that she is feeling very overwhelmed by all of her responsibilities (skill 2) because you too have felt overwhelmed at times (skill 1). You could say, “It sounds like there’s too much for you to do right now. I’ve had that happen to me and it’s very tiring and scary” (skill 3). Your friend replies, “That’s exactly how I feel!” (skill 4). Of course, your friend may not be able to receive your empathy but that shouldn’t prevent you from giving it to her. Sometimes people aren’t in a place where they can receive it at that moment but they may feel it at some later point in time. Remember, empathy is teachable but it requires experiential practice!

Ways to Practice Empathy

  1. At various times throughout each day, ask yourself how you are feeling (skills 1 & 4).
  2. Use good listening skills (skills 2 & 4).
  3. Take the role of someone and be interviewed within that role (skill 2).
  4. Use “I-statements” about how the other person may be feeling. Example: “I’m not sure if this applies to you, but if that were happening to me, I might feel (emotion). Is that how it feels for you?” Don’t tell them how they must be feeling (skill 3).
  5. Whenever something happens, even if it’s not to you or people you know, follow these steps (skills 1, 2 & 3):
    • Identify the event (what happened?)
    • Decide how you would feel if it happened to you
    • Think about ways to accurately express your empathy (this can mean just sitting in silence with them)

Having empathy for someone else is not always easy. It takes energy and practice and sometimes seems like it is more effort that it is worth. However, the rewards can be great. Perceived empathy allows for greater personal development. All of a sudden, you may feel more capable and resilient in your ability to interact with others.

Achieving empathy also has a great deal of rewards for the person who is feeling the received empathy. It can be very healing for them to finally be heard and feel understood. As such, they may be more willing to hear someone else, which is why empathy can be transformative and is absolutely necessary to conflict resolution.

Given the very great benefits of empathy, it seems clear that we need to do more of it. Our continued existence may depend upon it!

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