We’ve been hard at work strengthening our emotional intelligence (EI), haven’t we? We began with developing emotional intelligence, moved on to developing our self-awareness and self control and now we find ourselves at the last part of our work out: developing empathy. Let’s dig deeper first into what empathy means and then how we can all lean into it just a bit more.
It feels like everyone loves talking about empathy lately. But whenever it comes up in conversation, in an article I’m reading, or at a conference, I can’t help but wonder what developing empathy means to others.
To me, empathy means paying attention to what people are experiencing, feeling and needing. It’s about connecting with others in a genuine way so I can understand the why behind the what. It means trying to really understand what they feel and what experiences are like living in someone else’s shoes.
If my co-worker seems uncharacteristically upset about a project oversight, empathy helps me understand why before I react to the what–in this case another’s feelings.
For me, it helped to not only define the term–what is it we mean by empathy?–but also to determine who my empathy role model was. Who exactly was the most empathetic person I knew? And how did they show it? This allowed me to better identify specific qualities that I felt I could embody, even incrementally. So, let me ask you:
Who is the most empathetic person you know?
Once you’ve answered that question for yourself, let me ask another: why? In what specific ways does this individual show or use their empathy? Some examples to get you thinking:
- Do they give undivided attention?
- Can they tune into others’ feelings?
- Is it easy to confide and share information with them?
While it might seem silly at first, an example I often refer to is the character Sadness in the movie Inside Out:
If you watch the clip above you can see how Sadness comforts Bing Bong when Joy cannot. I truly admired how Sadness listened rather than motivated. Moreover, I admired how clear it was that Sadness had no other agenda than to be fully present with her friend. This is a great example of how sometimes it’s best to be there for others by mirroring their emotions rather than asking them to feel differently.
As I’ve continued exploring my passion around coaching to improve communication skills, I have constantly found myself stumped when it comes to developing empathy. We know what it is and can observe it in others, but what actionable steps can we take to grow and improve? The most important theme I’ve been able to pull together is active listening.
To be more specific, I am referring to three areas of active listening: question asking, affirmation, and summarization.
The problem is, often times we jump to conclusions before someone is done speaking, which means that our full attention is not on the speaker. We might even try to finish their sentences or reply with something that doesn’t quite fit their final thought. On the contrary, what we need to do is show respect and draw out critical information.
Conversely, when you ask questions it shows the speaker that you care about them and are genuinely interested in what they have to say. While you are focusing on what the speaker is saying, don’t forget to add your own cues of affirmation such as nodding or vocalizing “mhmm” as appropriate. Affirmations show the speaker that you are engaged and understand the message they are trying to get across. Lastly, when the speaker is done, summarizing helps you test your accuracy of listening. Summarizing correctly will bring joy and appreciation to the speaker, helping them truly feel heard!
So, when my coworker is uncharacteristically upset about a project oversight, my what can be asking a question like “tell me how you are feeling.” While paying full attention to their response I am sure to say my “mhmms”. Finally, I can conclude with a summary to ensure that I understood their issue and, where maybe I didn’t, they can add some specificity to help me understand more fully.
Don’t Give Up!
Relationships are a two-way transaction and empathy is one of the best currencies you can carry. It’s important to remember that people want to be understood just as much as you want to understand them. Empathic communication is not easy, but the more reps you do, the stronger you will grow. So if you’re ever feeling exhausted, remember to re-energize yourself (self-awareness) and continue trekking along (self control) your emotional intelligence work out plan!
Rachel Zolotarsky, Lingo Live Product Manager
Interested in reading more? Check out the other blogs in this series: