I was recently coaching a client who wanted desperately to rebuild a relationship with with a key person in his life. At some point we got on to the topic of empathy, and how important empathy is for relationships. After I’d explained a little about what empathy is, he blurted out, “But I don’t really like him, so how can I empathize?”
Empathy is the capacity for finding common ground around emotional experiences.
Empathy can be developed. Although liking someone helps, it’s not required. All that’s required is you care enough to do the work and take the risk.
Empathy, what it is and what it’s not
- Empathy is a built-in way for humans to tune to one another. It’s the great connector.
- Scientists argue that empathy may correspond to mirror neurons in our brains.
- Empathy is a critical survival skill because it’s how we know somebody needs our support or wants company for a celebration.
- Empathy helps us follow the Golden Rule because we can anticipate how another person would feel in a similar situation.
- Empathy is NOT sympathy. Feeling sorry for someone is not the same as feeling WITH someone.
- Empathy is LESS about what you’ve both been through (the content of your experiences), and MORE about the shared emotions generated from that experience, i.e. how you felt when it happened. I might have lost my father to cancer and you got fired, and we both can relate to having no control over what happens to us sometimes.
How to build empathy
- When someone shares a feeling and you just don’t get it, get curious about their experience. Learn more about what happened and how they felt.
- It’s OK to ask questions about another person’s feelings if you are curious. Never ask “why” questions about feelings, though. Feelings don’t need to be defended or explained. It’s better to ask open-ended questions, such as “I’d love to learn more. Will you share more about how you felt when that happened?”
- Look for common experiences. Seek first to relate to the experience, i.e. has anything like that ever happened to you? Then, try and remember how you felt.
- If you can find a common experience, share very briefly about it, but only enough to help the other person know you can relate. Avoid comparing stories or trying to “one-up” the other person. The point is to find common ground, not compete.
- Get comfortable talking about feelings. Are some uncomfortable truths about feelings.
Empathy is hard work, it’s scary, and it’s do-able. The benefits are more trust, deeper connections, and stronger relationships.