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Empathy under fire - How do you cope?

29 August 2013

± minute read

    Empathy under fire - How do you cope?
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We all get upset, angry, sad or feel down from time to time. During those times we often long for the company of those rare individuals who won’t just listen to us, but also hear us too: our best friends, our partners, our parents or therapist. It is amazing how their presence can have a positive impact on our moods. But why do we feel better when we chat to these people? How do they do it? They probably use a tool called empathy...Like a TV-Chef wielding his trusty knife, finely chopping veggies whilst having a conversation with the camera, empathy is a tool that requires skill - skill that can be developed. Empathy is all about where you focus your attention. If your attention is on understanding how the other person IS thinking and feeling right now, you are being empathetic. If your attention is on how this person SHOULD be thinking or feeling right now, you are being a jackass. Empathy requires trust, patience, and the belief that whilst this person isn’t feeling great or behaving rationally at the moment, he or she will feel better if they regain their sense of certainty, importance and connectedness with others. They just need someone to hear them, without judgements, without solutions or rational expectations. Acknowledge their craziness in the moment and they will slowly, but surely return to their senses.

The dual challenge of using empathy

  • You have to keep your own automatic impulses in check
  • You have to accurately grasp the other person’s thoughts and feelings

Keeping track of your automatic impulses

When you walk into an office and your colleague suddenly screams at his computer, you will experience an emotional response in your body accompanied by a rush of thoughts. This will happen automatically and you have split seconds in which you will either react without thinking, or stop yourself to consider your response. If you allow yourself to react without thinking, you might ask, annoyed with the person’s unprofessional behaviour: “What’s wrong with you?” which of course could make matters worse. If you took the time to consider your response, you could have used empathy: “You sound really upset. What’s going on?” These two responses look fairly similar, but will be perceived as worlds apart.

Accurately grasp what the other person is thinking and feeling

Your own emotions can often serve as a barometer for the emotions of those around you. We pick up on other people’s feelings automatically - no thinking involved - and we often get quite upset by unwanted and uninvited negative emotions. If you can suppress your initial impulse to react on these emotions, (i.e. becoming defensive) they can be a useful clue for you to what the other person might be feeling and respond with empathy. It is a little bit like throwing darts. The closer you are to the bulls-eye, the better you score and the more likely you are to improve the situation. Miss by too much and the situation could get worse.

Turn the other cheek...

“What you resist persists.” - Carl Jung From time to time, to improve a situation by using empathy you are going to have to take some shots without getting defensive. When was the last time you felt the need to stand up for yourself and protect your opinion, reputation and dignity - when you had to interrupt someone to explain the reasons for your behaviour. We all do this automatically and when we do this, we can easily come across as defensive. Despite your good intentions, defending yourself often feels like you are on the attack to the other person. They want to get a point across and all they hear from you is how wrong they are. The irony is that by reacting defensively, both of you get caught in a death-spiral. You both start speaking more and hearing less. Things usually end up worse off than where you started. Stopping yourself at this point, in order to listen and reflect what the other person is saying, is one of the hardest things a person can do. It feels like turning the other cheek - like you’re giving in and accepting defeat, but hang in there…You will have your turn to be heard, if you can do the hard work of hearing the other person first.

What Empathy is not:

With all that being said, you might feel like empathy is a tool reserved to only the saintly among us, but let us unpack it further. Empathy is a lot of things, but it is not:

  • Being nice
  • Sympathy
  • Agreeing with what is being said or experienced

Empathy is not being nice...

Empathy is simply putting yourself in someone else’s shoes or reflecting what you sense about them. A detective trying to find a criminal on the run employs empathy when he asks himself: “If I was this criminal, what would I be thinking and feeling right now?” – doing this does not condone the criminal’s actions.

Empathy is not sympathy...

Sympathy is what you feel in response to someone’s situation. Empathy is your best guess as to what the other person is feeling. A formula for an empathic statement or question is: “You + (seem, look, sound, appear) + (tired, angry, upset, happy) + are you?” The key-word is ‘YOU’. Sympathy on the other hand usually starts with the word ‘I’: “I’m so sorry that this has happened to you.”

Empathy is not about agreeing

When making an empathic statement, you are simply making a guess as to what the other person might be thinking or feeling and then checking your assumption with him or her. In order to do this you have to suspend your own beliefs and values a little and open yourself up to their way of looking at the world. This does not mean that you are in agreement, or that you will rescue them from their consequences. Steven Stein explains it as follows: “Empathy is simply an acknowledgment that the other party holds that viewpoint. By expressing empathy, you admit its existence without passing judgment on its validity” (Stein, 2011).

Final thoughts

Personally I find the topic incredibly interesting, but it feels kind of rich coming from me, where just last night I had a complete and utter empathy failure with my wife at home. Understanding empathy is easy – using it when it matters, is really hard to do. The content might look quite familiar to some. I borrowed quite heavily from the insights of Steven Stein from his book: The EQ Edge: Emotional Intelligence and Your Success. I can also recommend Mark Goulston’s book: Just Listen: Discover the Secret to Getting Through to Absolutely Anyone. Do you have any insights you would like to share? Comment below…

References & Further reading

Stein, S.J.; Book, H.E. (2011). The EQ Edge: Emotional intelligence and your success. Wiley. Goulston, M (2009). Just listen: discover the secret to getting through to absolutely anyone. AMACOM. Photo Credit: giveawayboy via Compfight cc

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