Empathy has been identified as one of the personality traits associated with high performance at work, which sounds rather odd at first, since this word has overtones of tea and sympathy (or crying into your beer) and may suggest a softness of approach which puts you just this side of being a pushover.
Actually, empathy is a high-order skill that you can develop to help you deal with a range of situations in your work and private life.
An empathic approach shows you to be a thoughtful, emotionally intelligent person who makes valuable connections and sound judgements.
Your professional and personal relationships are enhanced by your ability to understand the difficult boss, the friend who keeps making terrible decisions, the significant other who wants to extend the kitchen although you can’t afford it, the child who hangs out with the wrong crowd. And so on.
Empathy is not sympathy. Empathy is the ability to experience someone else’s world, someone else’s feelings from their perspective.
It’s more difficult than it sounds. Sympathy comes more easily. Most of us feel sympathy when we hear someone’s bad news (unless you are a very very nasty person), and most of us feel sorry for people in tough situations. How awful, we say, I’m so sorry for so-and-so, oh, you have my deepest sympathy.
The ability to feel sympathy is a warm and valued characteristic, and sympathising with sensitivity is a great talent.
When you empathise, you have to set aside your own opinions, feelings and judgements and see a situation as the other person experiences it. Instead of jumping in with comments or advice, pause and think:
- What is she saying? What is she thinking? What is she feeling? What does her world look like right now?
- Your perception and understanding of the other person’s position will shape your response. Show that you empathise by saying:
- ‘I see that you…’
- ‘I understand that you…’
- ‘I’m getting the impression that…’
- ‘I guess that the way you see it is…’
Not agreement or endorsement
Empathy requires you to enter the other person’s world, even if it is alien to you, even if it is a world you don’t like.
One of the skills involved in this process is maintaining your own integrity while acknowledging the thoughts and feelings which are influencing the other person.
Understanding someone’s value system and world view doesn’t mean you approve of it, but it is a first step to meaningful, constructive discussion.
Use body language to develop your empathic skills
Your body language can express empathy without words. Make sure your facial expression and gestures reflect what the other person is experiencing as opposed to what you are thinking.
When a colleague speaks animatedly about a new idea, don’t listen with a frown on your face because you are calculating how much it would cost.
When your pal or young person is miserable about a relationship break-up, tune in to their feelings by adopting a similar pose and facial expression — yes, even though you are relieved because the person was never good enough for them anyway…
You can practise empathic body language by noticing people’s body language when they are upset, or angry, or sad, or confused.
Assume the same posture and gestures. Feel what it is like to slump down, or to drum your fingers on the table, or to jab your finger in the air, or to fold your arms tightly. This will help you to empathise with their feelings.
How to empathise with someone you find difficult
Feeling brave? Try this way of getting into the skin of someone you don’t really get on with, one of those people who doesn’t quite get you and who you find similarly offputting.
Write down one of your personal qualities, something that is important in your view of yourself. It might be your sense of humour, or your sensitivity, or your helpfulness.
I’ve got a good sense of humour.
Now imagine how this quality might seem to the person in question:
‘He’s a bit lightweight. You can never tell when he’s taking something seriously.’
I’m sensitive to people’s feelings:
‘She’s too soft.’
I like to be helpful
‘Always rushes in with a solution, doesn’t listen.’
This kind of insight will help you to understand the nature of your relationship and to take steps to improve it.
Empathy encourages self-awareness and personal growth. An empathic person is good at leading, at team work, at negotiating. Empathy is a top skill, one worth working at.
Go on, step into that person’s Jimmy Choos or Converse trainers. You may be surprised by what you discover.