One spring day some years ago, my then-14-year-old nephew stomped into the kitchen, threw down his knapsack, and huffed his way over to the refrigerator.
“What’s wrong, sweetie?”
“My coach doesn’t like me. I have no idea why and I am going to quit. It’s not fair!”
“So you’ve hit a real rough spot and you feel like you’re backed up against a wall.”
“I just want to be able to play, Aunt Jean. I just want my chance.”
“I know… and it is so frustrating when you don’t have a clue why you’re not.”
That day in the kitchen, I was fully-present to my nephew and connected with him through empathy. I got into his teenage athlete shoes as best I could, listened to his frustration, confusion, and anger and allowed him to feel heard and understood. This moment was the “I get you” prelude to problem-solving and next steps.
Roman Krznaric, Ph.D and founding member of The School of Life in London, defines empathy as “the ability to step into the shoes of another person, aiming to understand their feelings and perspectives, and to use that understanding to guide our actions.”
For some, being empathetic when a person is filled with emotion can be a scary and confusing place. We think “I’m not really comfortable with this. What if I totally miss the point and get it wrong?” For others, empathy isn’t a well-developed part of our communication toolkit. And so, well-intentioned as we may be, we rely on other responses. We jump to offering solutions: “Why don’t you…?” or, we minimize the situation: “It can’t be that bad…” or we dismiss the person’s feelings: “Don’t forget that the sun will always come out tomorrow.” These responses are rarely helpful. The conversation goes flat, we don’t understand why, and the other person often feels more alone and sometimes, emotionally abandoned.
Researchers tell us that we are biologically wired for empathy, as are dogs, rats, and possibly even plants. It makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint because empathy fosters cooperation, which in turn fosters survival. When we consider our own experience, it’s abundantly-clear that empathy is a relationship game-changer. It allows us to connect on a deeper human level by taking our “surface-level nice” interactions to a more meaningful place where we engage as two people who seek to understand one another.
Nursing scholar Theresa Wiseman has identified these four attributes of empathy:
- To be able to see the world as others see it
- To be non-judgmental
- To understand another person’s feelings
- To communicate your understanding of that person’s feelings
From my years of coaching employees and their managers, I know that these heavy-hitters are powerful! They challenge our self-awareness, openness, humility, and our willingness to step into the other person’s shoes and feel what it’s like inside them. Translation: they require us to be open and vulnerable. I have witnessed many a Eureka! moment, as in “When I put aside my lens, I was able to truly see and understand why they feel and behave as they do.” Empathy goes beyond building understanding; it also builds a foundation of trust at work and at home. Early in my marriage, my husband and I had conversations where we both felt frustrated. I’d explain a vexing situation and he’d jump into problem-solving mode when all I wanted was to be heard and understood. Now he knows that when I say, “I just need you to listen,” he gets me!
Empathy changes things between people. The good news is that if you are willing, it is a skill that can be learned, sharpened, and deepened. Consider that highly-empathic people:
- Are curious about strangers – curiosity expands empathy because it expands our worldview
- Listen well – to the feelings behind the words, to the body language that speaks silently
- Open up – to reveal their own vulnerabilities and create an emotional common ground
- Are okay with silence – allow for understanding to unfold
- Paraphrase and summarize – engage by acting as a mirror for the other person
What are your strengths and where can you build your empathy muscle?