On a train ride home from Manhattan, I overheard two women engaged in conversation. As I listened in, one of the women began opening up about the busy-ness of her daily grind. Her friend listened for a bit then proceeded to share about the busy-ness of her schedule. I’m not sure if she was aware of the message she was communicating. In other words, it’s as if she was saying, “If you think your day is busy, take a look at mine!” I couldn’t help but think,
“When did this become all about you?”
Moment of clarity
A couple of days later, while discussing this story with a friend, I mustered the courage to ask if I had ever made the same mistake with her. After a brief pause, my friend replied, “Yes. That’s actually one of the things I can’t stand about you.”
How many times has a spouse, family member, friend, girlfriend, boyfriend, or co-worker come to us seeking empathy, only to be met with insensitivity? One could argue those instances happened out of ignorance. (And sure, they very may well have.) But ignorance doesn’t diminish the pain caused by our insensitivity.
It was evident that I needed a much deeper understanding of empathy.
By definition, empathy is the ability to be sensitive to and understand the feelings, thoughts, or emotions of someone else. In plain English, putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. We, however, live in a very self-centered and self-absorbed society. In 2013, the word “selfie” was awarded “Word of the Year” by the Oxford Dictionary. (Think that’s bad? We can’t even spell “we” without putting an “i” [Wii] in there.)
We’ve been brainwashed to think its all about me, myself, and I. Consequently, we are missing opportunities to connect with others on a deeper level.
I’d like to posit that in order to be a better empathist, we must learn the art of empathetic listening and master the following three disciplines.
1. Ask questions
It’s been said that the average person listens for about 18 seconds before responding. How can we show we’re listening? Ask questions. For example, in the story earlier, that friend could have asked:
- “How does that make you feel” or,
- “How do you make it through the day?”
2. Validate their feelings
It’s important to repeat their words back to them. Depending on what’s been shared, you can say things like:
- “Wow, I had no idea you were dealing with all that stress!”
- “So, you’re sad you don’t spend as much time with your son?”
Doing this will let them know that you heard and understood them.
3. It’s not about you
When someone comes seeking a listening ear, the worst thing you can do is begin sharing about all your problems. (There is a time and a place for that.) Doing so will shift the focus from them to you. Instead, take the feelings associated with your problems and say, “I can imagine that you feel…”
When I’ve taken this approach, things have always worked out more favorably.
“Empathy is about standing in someone else’s shoes, feeling with his or her heart, seeing with his or her eyes.” – Daniel H. Pink