Do you want to become a better communicator? Nurture the art of empathy

The great gift of human beings is that we have the power of empathy
(Meryl Streep)

Empathy is the ability to see the world from another’s point of view.

Or, as I once heard:

It’s the ability to walk in someone else’s footprints while wearing our shoes.

Empathic people score high on Emotional Intelligence tests, have better relationships, and are universally sought after in leadership positions. This is thanks to their capacity to identify with others’ world views and advanced communication skills.

But what does walking in someone else’s footprints wearing our shoes mean?

People often think of empathy as the same as sympathy, pity and compassion. They think it’s only what makes us feel sad for a friend going through a hard time or shed a tear thinking about other’s plights. While this is true, it’s also a limitation.

Being empathic doesn’t only happen at a feeling level; it also involves cognitive and behavioural skills.

On a cognitive level, in order to be empathic the listener has to take an active and neutral receptive position in relation to the interlocutor’s experience. This is a position where one has to keep prejudice at bay, while fully concentrating on understanding. Sounds easy? Well, imagine a therapist counselling an inmate to prepare them for life outside prison and prevent re-offending. In scenarios like this, the therapist’s empathy can be severely challenged, yet without it he or she wouldn’t be able to act as a catalyst for change. In the same way, empathy can be used to resolve conflicts between people who have opposing views, both at home and at work.

Next is the behavioural level of empathy – this is the ability to show that one is listening in an active way which makes the other feel fully understood (if we’re empathic without showing it, then how can the other know?). Active listeninginvolves keeping eye contact (but no staring!) and open body language (but no crossed arms or frowning!); paraphrasing what the interlocutor is saying (that is rephrasing what we’re being told in our own words) and generally checking whether we heard it right before we decide it’s time for us to speak.

Once we take into account the three dimensions of empathy, it becomes clear that listening empathically requires a lot of mental stamina. Yet, with some practice and patience, it’s a skill anyone can develop and one I’d recommend to anyone interested in personal growth.

So, if you want to start developing the art of empathy today, below are a few tips that you might find helpful.

1. Listen without interrupting

When someone is talking to you, try and refrain from interrupting or finishing their sentences for them. Instead concentrate on what they are saying, ask for clarification when their train of thought doesn’t make sense to you and repeat what they said in your own words to make sure you got it right.

2. Refrain from giving advice

The desire to jump in with some sound advice when someone comes to us with a problem is strong in most of us. After all, we all want to be helpful. Yet, we must remember that advice is always given from our own frame of reference. This means that what is good for us isn’t necessarily good for others. Next time someone comes to you with a problem, refrain from giving advice. This might be more meaningful to them than you offering a quick solution that might be impossible for them to apply to their situation.

3. Monitor your feelings

Listening to someone can bring up in us all sorts of different feelings. Psychotherapists call this phenomenon countertransference – but the truth is it doesn’t only happen in the consulting room, it happens in everyday life. So noticing how we respond to what others tell us is a good habit to get into. With time we will start discovering patterns that will help us better interact with each other, while we separate our own feelings from the ones others provoke in us.

4. Keep a diary

Whenever we want to learn a new behavioural skill, keeping a diary can become our best ally. Have you had a particularly good conversation today where you felt you were able to listen empathically without giving advice or trying to finish someone else’s sentences for them? Note it down! Write what you did well, and what you could do differently next time. Above all, write about your feelings. How did the conversation make you feel? How do you think it made your interlocutor feel? Keeping a diary is an invaluable tool to develop both empathy and self awareness.

5. Start with small steps

Last but not least, no one can expect to be empathic from the moment they get up in the morning to the moment they go to bed. So start with small steps. Practice listening empathically to one person a day or for five minutes a day. Don’t beat yourself up when you make mistakes. Note them down instead! Nurturing the art of empathy and our communication skills takes a lifetime, so take your time to master it.

Important: being empathic is not about tollerating abusive or offensive language. If your interlocutor can’t keep the conversation civil you have every right to leave the room and re-engage only when they’re prepared to talk rather than shouting.

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