I Understand How You Feel (Oh No You Don't!)
Challenging the Paradigm of How to Communicate Empathy
Understanding a Person's Condition from Their Perspective
Empathy - from Greek empatheia (from em-'in' + pathos 'feeling'). People often confuse the words Empathy and Sympathy. Empathy is the experience of understanding another person's condition from their perspective whereas Sympathy means feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune.
A paradigm is a theory or belief system that guides the way we do things. It can be defined as a pattern or model; a set of assumptions, concepts, values, and practices that constitute a way of viewing reality. It’s easy to buy into a paradigm when it seems logical and you have no other frame of reference. It isn’t however always the wisest thing to do. This article challenges the paradigm of how to communicate or respond with empathy.
Where Does it Begin?
When people listen, they do so naturally from their own perspective. The concept of responding with empathy begins with the intention of understanding the other person's point of view from their perspective, not one’s own. How is what they are saying affecting them? How are they feeling about what they are saying? Communication is driven by intention, not technique and so it is important to be clear on your intention when you are listening and responding with empathy.
I Understand How You Feel. (Oh No You Don’t!)
How do you feel when somebody tells you that they understand how you feel? Most of the time it’s annoying even though the person might be genuinely empathic.
We have learned to communicate empathy in some strange ways. We have been taught to imagine how we would feel if we were in a similar position to someone else and this would help us to empathise with them. If you were to empathise by asking yourself, “How would I feel if I was that person?” you have missed the point. It really isn’t about you at all.
What is it about the word Eimpathy? Did you notice the incorrect spelling? There is no ‘i’ in Empathy and that is the key. When you put yourself in someone else’s shoes you are typically trying to imagine how you would feel if you were in that person’s place. But, there is no ‘i’ in Empathy. In other words, this is not about you, this is about them.
You can’t respond with empathy unless you have been listening with empathy. In other words, you first need to listen and try to understand how they are feeling before you can respond appropriately. Instead of saying, “I understand how you feel, it happened to me too,” simply consider how you think they are feeling and check it out. For example, “You seem to be quite worried about how long it is taking?”
When responding with empathy, remember to relate back both the FEELING and the CONTENT to the other person. For example, “You must be feeling very frustrated (feeling) that you didn’t get there on time (content)?”
In our quest to help, we often rush to give advice or suggest a course of action when most of the time providing empathy would be far more appropriate. Some people compound matters even further by using the irritating phrase, “If I was you I would…..” Always check if someone wants advice before giving it to them.
Here are some more examples of responding with empathy.
- You seem to be concerned about how it will impact on your customers?
- You seem quite excited about meeting your nephew?
- It must be frustrating not having enough time to complete the project?
- You must be annoyed that he didn’t consult you first?
- You seem disappointed that they didn’t use your design?
- You seem quite sad that he’s gone?
- You seem delighted that you no longer have to work in that office?
- You seem relieved that he finally saw your point of view?
Connecting With Others
Listening with empathy and responding appropriately is one of the most powerful techniques you can use to develop your communication skills and improve your relationships. Being understood is a fundamental psychological need that we all have. A well communicated empathic response will clearly show the other person that you are sincere and that you do understand. Take time to listen to understand, and experience an immediate positive impact.