Connecting to Others: Practicing Empathy

Empathy is our ability to feel and deeply understand the feelings of others. The power of empathy is in allowing those we interact with to feel felt and seen in the context of the relationship. When empathy is missing, people in relationships can begin to feel misunderstood and alone (Walser & Westrup, 2009).

When you begin lose your ability to be empathetic in a relationship, what begins to happen is that you often fill in the gaps of understanding with your own projections and attempts to read the minds of the other person. Instead of focusing on what that person may be feeling and what that experience may be like for them, the focus centers on your own feelings and how let down, angry, disappointed, or lonely you may be. This focus on one’s own interpretation of a someone else’s story continues to breakdown the connection in the relationship.

Why does this happen? Often, it is because each person in the relationship is trying to navigate his or her own emotional reaction to whatever situation they find themselves in. Each person may lose touch with how to leave room for the experience of others in the face of their own strong emotional experience.

The good news is that empathy can be learned and practiced. So, if you want to stay connected in your relationships, then here at 10 ways to cultivate empathy:

  • Be Curious and Avoid Story-telling – One of the best things you can do is to ask questions and the best questions to ask are about the other person’s feelings or what they may need from you. If you don’t understand then ask and don’t fall into the trap of making up a story about what he/she is thinking. When you let people hear that you want to understand in a deeply connected way you can increase your level of intimacy. Example: “I know you said today was a tough one for you. What’s on your mind?”
  • Focus on Listening – Try to focus on looking people in the eye and hearing what they are saying. Paraphrase what you heard when the person is finished speaking and then express your own emotional reaction or your understanding of that person’s feelings. Example: “I understand that you have been really stressed about this new project at work. I hear that you just want it to be over. When I had a similar experience, I found that I really wanted to avoid working all together.”
  • Find Compassion – Compassion is the way that we let others know that we see their suffering or struggle. Taking a compassionate approach to our interactions means listening with intention to messages about what the other person is struggling with while avoiding assumptions. For example, if your partner shares that he or she is sad about a recent breakup then listening with compassion would have you focusing on understanding the source of the sadness and offering validation of that feeling.
  • Imagine How Others Feel– You know your own perspective well. Now, I challenge you to think about if from the perspective of others. What might it be like to be your friend right now? How would you react? How would you feel in a similar situation? If you felt that way, how would you want to be treated? This approach does not assume that you actually know how the other person is feeling but rather it is an exercise in focusing on taking the perspective of others and allows for greater compassion and empathy in your relationships.
  • Validate Feelings – Validation is not the same as agreeing. It is simply the task of hearing what the other person is feeling and offering him/her understanding and care in return. You may not feel the same way but you can still validate his/her experiences. Example: “I hear that you are angry about how much life has changed since you had to change positions at work and I can see how hard this has been for you.”
  • Imagine What The Other Person Wants – If you were afraid, sad or angry there are many things you might appreciate that offer you comfort during difficult times. If you know what your friend or loved one finds comforting it can be a wonderful gesture to offer these things to help him/her feel cared for. The focus is really on what he/she would like and if you aren’t sure what helps that person feel safe and cared for then ask.
  • Avoid Problem-Solving (unless asked)– Keep in mind that empathy is not about fixing the problem for the other person but is about attending to the relationship with understanding. If you rush in to fix his/her feelings that is often experienced as invalidating and sends the message that emotions are not welcomed or allowed in the relationship. When you can simply listen and offer understanding you will find that others will feel reassured and cared for.
  • Be Vulnerable– Be open to sharing your own experience and ways in which you can relate to the concerns or emotions of others. This openness to sharing your own feelings creates channels for deepening intimate connections. Know that you only have to share what you feel comfortable with so only be as open as you feel the relationship deserves.
  • Steer Clear of Judgement– We all handle stressors in different ways. As human-beings, we also have a terrible habit of wanting to file everything into a clean category of good or bad. This is a big problem when cultivating empathy. In order to be truly empathetic, judgement needs to be put away and replaced by an openness to understand and hold the feelings of others even when we disagree or see things differently.

Empathy builds connections and offers protection against feelings of loneliness and isolation for us and for those we care about. I hope you find value in practicing these empathy-builders regularly.

REFERENCES

Walser, R. D. & Westrup, D. (2009). The Mindful Couple: how acceptance and mindfulness can lead to the love you want. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc. 

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