Do you ever feel ill-equipped to respond to a friend, spouse, or co-worker when they're sharing strong feelings or a painful experience? Do you postpone those difficult conversations rooted in hurt and resentment? If there was ever a panacea to ease pain, diffuse emotions, and invoke understanding, it's empathy.
But empathy is more than a band-aid over the wounds of the heart—it's the heart medicine we all need to heal! Empathy is our emotional oxygen!
Is empathy worth the effort of learning and practicing? Let me list the ways it will make your relationships sweeter and help eliminate unresolved conflict. Below are the benefits you'll experience. You decide.
Benefits of Empathy
Empathy allows you to:
- Show yourself self-compassion and resolve inner conflict.
- Clear internal static and sharpen clarity of what you want.
- Calm and transform automatic, negative self-talk.
- Relinquish judgment of self and others.
- Create a spacious sense of well-being.
- Connect you with others in a real and authentic way.
- Diffuse yours, and another's emotions effectively—in short order.
- Dramatically increase understanding in all relationships.
- Redirect anger (and other strong emotions) effectively.
- Widen your influence and impact on all teams and in all relationships.
- Constructs a kind and firm opening for setting healthy boundaries.
- And creating a life-long habit of cognitive and compassionate empathy will eliminate many arguments and misunderstandings.
What do you think—worth learning and mastering?
So, what is at the heart of why this skill is so effective? To explain this, a quick synopsis of the brain will help.
From infancy, our brains are hard-wired for relationships and connections. We crave resonant interactions and authentic connections that give us a sense of belonging.
In a very abridged explanation, we all have three brains that dictate our thoughts, actions, and reactions—conscious and unconscious! Empathy lies in the higher brain yet is also fueled by the limbic or emotional brain.
- Reptilian brain (brain stem) motivates us to seek safety.
- Limbic brain (the emotional or mammalian brain) leads us to social bonding and connection.
- Prefrontal cortex (the rational mind) urges us to solve problems, improve our situation, and maintain relationships through concern, kindness, and empathy.
Feeling Understood Is a Human Need
In Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, he illustrated very clearly how feeling heard and understood is a fundamental need. However, he also states that people first need to fulfill physical needs, such as air, water, food, and shelter. Once we meet our physical needs, our needs move up the Maslow's pyramid.
However, I would assert that even when these basic needs aren't satisfied, empathy still trumps all. As humans, our profound need to be heard and understood yearns for another person to empathize even if we're feeling unsafe or are poverty-stricken. Empathy allows us to connect, feel safer and more secure while easing the pain of life's hardships and struggles.
I once read a quote on a greeting card, "Love that melts the snow!" The picture depicted rays of sunshine, not only melting the snow but causing flowers to rise and bloom in the dead of winter. When we empathize genuinely, its warmth melts layers of negative emotion covering a person's inner truth or elevates positive emotion through sharing the experience. Once heard, the flowers of the heart bloom and people feel cared for, more grounded, and ready to take actions that lead them to feel better.
There are three different kinds of empathy, which we cover at length in this blog: The Three Kinds of Empathy: Emotional, Cognitive, and Compassionate. Or if you'd prefer, you can listen to this YouTube video by Daniel Goleman, an expert in Emotional Intelligence and one of my mentors.
Sometimes it's helpful to lay out what empathy is not to measure more accurately when we're on and off target. Below are common symptoms or signs of a lack of empathy. You'll probably recognize some of them.
Common Symptoms of a Lack of Empathy
- The person's emotions intensify or shut down quickly.
- The other person changes the subject abruptly.
- The person justifies and defends their position.
- You minimize or invalidate the person's experience, i.e., you try to convince them that their situation isn't so bad.
- You counter with a bigger problem of your own.
- You get overwhelmed, impatient or frustrated.
- An attitude of "just buck up" is present.
- You try to fix their problem or tell the person what they need to do to feel better.
- You make excuses that you have to go or you change the subject.
- You or the other person try to prove you're right; an argument or fight ensues.
- You feel frozen like a deer in front of headlights and don't know what to say.
Did you recognize any of these symptoms? Don't worry if you did. It's so easy to feel awkward when another person is upset or troubled. We want them to feel better and somehow take away their pain.
Now that you know what empathy is NOT, let's compare these symptoms with a list when empathy IS present.
Signs You're Empathizing!
- There are engagement and a heightened resonance.
- An increased connection between the people unfolds.
- You feel in sync with one another.
- The person's emotions dissipate or recede, and often there is a sigh of relief.
- The person acknowledges they feel understood with words like, "Yes, exactly!" or "Boy, did you hit it on the head!" or "So true... thanks for listening."
- The interchanges lead to deeper closeness or understanding.
- Dialogue opens up a more real and honest conversation.
- Frequently the person will move to their own creative ideas or solutions and will no longer be swimming in a puddle of emotions.
- The energy clears. Even if the person is still struggling emotionally, they'll feel more capable because they know they're not alone.
Authentic empathy positively impacts, and energy dramatically shifts for the better.
So where do you begin if you want to ensure that you're being empathetic?
There are a few precursors (much like stretching before exercise) that will shed some light on the process and make it easier to empathize. Master these beginning steps, and you'll be well on your way!
The First Steps of Empathizing
Begin by observing your thoughts with neutrality.
Through this introspection, you'll raise your awareness and begin to quiet the clamoring of your mind. You may be surprised how easy it is to think derogatory things about the very person you're seeking to understand. Quieting our own thoughts is crucial when aiming to listen better and ultimately help another person feel understood.
When you begin to notice yourself more closely, be gentle. Raised awareness tends to magnify unhelpful or critical thinking habits previously unconscious. If this happens, give yourself a dose of self-acceptance.
Empty your mind when listening to another person.
This step alone can be challenging and requires consistent practice. Many times, we are crafting our response, thinking of how we disagree or finding quick fixes to make the person feel better. Solving someone's problem may seem helpful, but it is not empathetic. And whenever your mind is wandering, you are not present. Much like meditating on your in-breath and out-breath, every time your mind wanders, gently bring it back.
Release any judgment of another's experience.
You may be feeling critical about the way a person has acted or is expressing themselves to you at the time. It's impossible to feel genuine understanding while judging another person.
Judging can be a way for us to protect ourselves and avoid the uncomfortable emotions that arise inside of us. If we have unresolved feelings of our own, listening to someone else's emotions, their challenges, and pain can trigger us. When filled with emotional static, you will have a difficult time truly listening. Calm your mind and emotions to create spaciousness for the other person to feel heard. Suspend judgment. Remember that you can disagree with a person and still empathize.
Related reading: "How to Talk with Empathy—and What to Avoid!"
Empathy isn’t agreement. Your objective is only to create a safe space for a person to feel and move through their emotions and experience more fully.
Be present to the other person.
To be fully present to the other person means that you set aside your agenda, your need to fix, and your desire for the person to feel better. Presence requires us to corral our straying thoughts and accurately mirror the person's emotion. If they are sad, your energy will sync with that slower energy. If the person is hyped up and excited or angry, your energy will need to pick up the intensity for a person to feel seen.
Have you ever shared an experience with a partner or friend that felt very tender and emotional to you, but when the person responded, their response felt deadpan like they didn’t even hear you? We accomplish affective empathy and limbic or emotional resonance when we are open and present to the other person without judgment. We connect in an emotional harmony that is nonverbal. It is FELT through the connection of resonance.
Once you learn how powerful this skill can be, you'll be amazed at its effect in all of your relationships. For instance, a client's husband was a serious doubter of empathy until his wife made him feel so heard that he was totally hooked. He started using empathy himself and the better he got, the more effectively this tool worked. Now, he swears by it and uses empathy in his daily life, even at work.
As you can see, empathy is far from just slapping a band-aid on someone's hurt. These few actions above will help you to begin learning to be more empathetic. If practiced regularly, you’ll be surprised at how magnanimous communications can be!
Heartmanity teaches the ins and outs of empathy, which is an elaborate art and science. Because we’ve seen the healing power of this single tool, we are passionate about sharing it with others. If you'd like to learn more, try our workbook, "Real Empathy, Real Solutions: 4 Keys for Unlocking the Power of Empathy.
For more customized support, contact us at support@Heartmanity to learn more about our coaching programs.