Empathy for Beginners

Earlier, we talked about the value of empathy as an influence enhancer. Let’s dig a little deeper into how you can practice empathy.

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There are four key actions that signal empathy to another person:

  1. Take the other person’s perspective and recognize it as their truth. This doesn’t mean you have to agree with the other person. It just means you have to acknowledge that their exposure and education and experience to that point in their lives has led them to be in whatever reality they’re in… and in their world, it’s their truth.

  2. Stay out of judgment, silver-lining, and solution-finding. This means that sentences that start with, “At least…” or “Have you tried...” or “Why didn’t you…” are off limits. Your job in this moment is to expand upon what the other is saying by getting curious about their experience. If they’re sharing good news with you, ask what you can do to help celebrate. If they’re miserable, don’t try to make them feel better… instead acknowledge their misery, and then sit with them in it. Yes… it can be uncomfortable… but that’s the stuff of true connection.

  3. Recognize emotion in the other. People want to be seen for who and what they are. Emotions are very physiological and psychological experiences (whether they’re bright or dark) that make up a huge component of who we are as human beings. Notice the people around you and the experiences they’re having.

  4. Communicate that recognition.  As a person experiences an emotion, putting together a few words that communicates your recognition of that experience helps them know that they are seen. Although we often notice someone is excited or anxious or uncomfortable, we don’t often let them know that we see that person going through that experience. It is the seeing and being seen that allows us to connect as human beings.

The next time you get together with a friend, try this out for real. When “Mary” begins to tell you about something that happened at work last week, try sharing only empathetic responses. If you’re an empathy beginner, a quick hint for you is that responses that begins with “So you…” will get you going in the right direction most of the time.

Seriously, try this for maybe 5 minutes and then ask yourself…

  • How much did I listen vs talk?
  • How hard was it to stay empathetic vs judgmental or solution-finding?
  • What did you notice or learn about “Mary”?

As a general warning, it’s hard. If you think it’s easy, you’re probably not doing it right. But don’t worry, empathy is a muscle you can stretch and strengthen. It’s basically like doing squats. You’ll get stronger, and it gets better.

With whom can you be more empathetic?

-- Kara Davidson, Cofounder, wolf & heron