By Steve Melendy, PsyD
If you’re human, you’ve had have many great relationships throughout life and have communicated and connected beautifully with those around you. However, if you’re human, you’ve also been on some relationship roller coasters wherein the tracks have been oiled for speed by communication breakdowns and difficult interpersonal dynamics. The complexities of mingling and communicating with each other can be easy when we mingle with those who are a lot like us, who have similar ideas, interests, communication styles, etc. However, each person is a bundle of unique characteristics created by a unique history, greatly reducing the odds that we bump into someone similar to us in daily life. Not only that, but how often have you found yourself being similar to your noisy next door neighbor, the coworker two cubes down who takes credit for your work, or the annoying friend of a friend who shouts their accolades at every outing (could be the same person taking credit for your work). Hence, having effective interpersonal interactions, communication, and dynamics can become tricky business. In this series, I will introduce concepts that can help make our interactions with others more fruitful and pleasant by helping us understand another person’s situation from their perspective, knowing how to listen, knowing how to show others we have heard and understand, and knowing how to communicate in a way that helps everyone’s needs get met.
Concept 1: Empathy
Developing healthier connections and interactions with others starts with gaining a clearer understanding of a person, what their situation is, what they’re thinking, what they’re feeling. Empathy, our first concept of the series, cultivates understanding of another person’s thoughts, feelings, and their current situation. It is also the beginning point that can provide important information about what they need, what their strengths are, where they might need help, what they can give and what they can’t, why they do the things that they do, and much more. However, before we define empathy, let’s see how good, or bad, we are at empathizing. There are three exercises I have in mind. Keep in mind that these aren’t definitive empathy tests, but they will give you a feel for what it’s all about. The first is an audio quiz. You’ll have to enter your name and email address to do the exercise. This will sign you up to receive email notes, but if you don’t want to receive them, you merely click the “unsubscribe” link at the bottom of the first email. Oh, and be sure and scroll through the list of professions at the end of the test. I laughed. The second is an emotional intelligence quiz based on Paul Ekman’s research. Part of the empathy process involves identifying another person’s emotions, which is partly done through recognizing emotions associated with facial expressions. The quiz has you try to identify the emotions behind a series of faces. The third is a self report quiz where you answer questions about how you interact and are impacted by others. Be honest, now. So, have fun, and, of course, come back here to read the rest of this post.
Carl Rogers defined empathy as “the ability and willingness to understand another person’s thoughts, feelings, and struggles from that person’s point of view. It’s the ability to see completely through the person’s eyes, to adopt his frame of reference. It means entering the private perceptual world of the other person being sensitive, moment by moment, to the changing felt meanings which flow in this other person.” Put differently, empathy involves cognitive (the thinking part) and emotional processes that occur in the observing individual in reaction to interacting with another person, where the observer experiences the emotions and can take the perspective of the other person. In other words, if you’re sad and I interact with you in an empathic way, I will feel the sadness and I will understand, from your perspective, why you are sad. Notice that the sadness and the perspective that I have from empathizing has nothing to do with my life situation, my personal emotions, or what I think as an individual. There is no “me” in empathy. Empathy is all about the other person’s thoughts, feelings, and situation. When I let my personal emotions, thoughts and perspectives get mixed up in the empathy process things become cloudy. How can I truly be empathizing, truly understanding another’s perspective, thoughts, and emotions, when I’m also thinking about my thoughts and feeling my personal emotions? Additionally, using some attention to devise a solution to offer the other person is even more of a barrier to empathy. Not only is dividing and diverting attention from the other person to ourselves while trying to be empathic a problem, but when we mix in our thoughts and emotions while trying to listen to and understand another person we run the risk of judging them, which is one of the biggest roadblocks to hearing and understanding them. One last important point about empathy is that we don’t have to agree with the person’s perspective or like the way they’re feeling, or like the reason they’re feeling the way they’re feeling, or like the things they do. We just have to, and this important, be willing to allow ourselves to be vulnerable and to feel and understand their perspective without judgment.
So, why is empathy important, and what does it help us do better? Having more complete and accurate understanding of the emotions and perspective of another individual observed helps us understand what a person is not getting that they need, what they need from us, from others, and the world in general, what they’re struggling with, how they’re perceiving themselves and the world around them, why they’re doing the things they’re doing and not doing other things, etc. It also helps us understand positives, such as what their strengths and values are, what skills they have that might be helpful, etc. Knowing all of this will help us provide better support and help to others, and will help us communicate with them more effectively when they’re ready for our help. But first and foremost, knowing all of the above, i.e., having a more accurate empathic understanding, helps us better connect with another person because we are sharing their emotional experience and perspective about themselves and the world around them. Being able to feel what another is feeling and think what another is thinking brings us to the same level, the same space, the same experience, which helps create mutual understanding that strengthens bonds and connection.
What is empathy? An article by Greater Good, published by UC Berkeley. Further defines empathy, expands on the benefits of empathy, and how to cultivate empathy.
Outrospection. Roman Krznaric. This video further explains empathy, but also explains how empathy can help on a grander scale than just individuals.
The Seven Habits of Highly Empathic People, by Roman Krznaric. Great vide describing some things highly empathic people do.
Books on empathy. Published by UC Berkeley’s Greater Good project.
The Art of Empathy. Karla McLaren. Explores empathy and the processes involved in it, and provides insight into how to foster enhanced empathy in daily life.
Six Essential Aspects of Empathy . Karla McLaren A nice presentation of some six concepts important to empathy.