Communication Fundamentals a Therapist Perspective Part Two

By Steve Melendy, PsyD

In my last post, I touched on some things that might get in the way of empathy and what helps foster empathy. In this post, I will describe specific strategies that inhibit and foster empathy. First, however, you might want to watch this short video on empathy, as it foreshadows some things this post will discuss

1. Don’t Think. As was mentioned in the last post, doing anything other than hearing and feeling the other person’s messages can be problematic when trying to be empathic. Examples include trying to fix the person’s problems, giving advice, reassuring or consoling, etc. Here’s a list of empathy blocking actions taken from Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life

  •  Advising: “I think you should…”How come you didn’t…?”
  •  One-upping: “That’s nothing, wait until you hear….”
  •  Educating: “This could turn into a good experience for you if you just…”
  • Consoling: “It’s wasn’t your fault, you did the best you could.”
  •  Story-telling: “That reminds me of the time…”
  •  Shutting down: “Cheer up. Don’t feel so bad.”
  •  Sympathizing: “Oh you poor thing.”
  • Interrogating: “When did this begin?”
  •  Explaining: “I would have called, but…”
  • Correcting: “That’s not how it happened.”

Doing any of the above engages our thinking, distracts us emotionally, and pulls our focus away from the other person. When we engaged in any of these actions, we are no longer present in the moment or attending to the person’s messages they are delivering with their words, body posture, and facial expressions. We aren’t noticing what the other person is doing, how they’re doing it, what they’re really saying, and how they’re saying it.

2. Approach with Willingness. Being truly empathic with someone who is feeling and communicating pain takes courage and willingness. The process of being empathic involves the listener feeling what the other person is feeling to some degree, and it’s not pleasant to feel emotional pain, to feel sadness, hopelessness, anxiety, etc. However, you have to choose and commit to be willing to feel those emotions to truly connect to the other person emotionally and understand the emotional situation.

3. Approach with Blank Slate. This involves approaching a person with a “clean slate”;without any preconceived judgments or ideas about that person. With a clear mindand heart, and openness and non-judgment. As is eloquently worded by the Martin Buber, you have to approach the person “…like a newborn child, a new face, that has never been before and will never come again. It demands of you a reaction that cannot be prepared beforehand. It demands nothing of what is past. It demands presence and responsibility.”

4. Approach with Full Attention. You have to fully attend to the person in the moment and what they say and how they say it, including body language and facial expressions. All focus needs to be on the present moment and towards the person you’re trying to understand. The person’s current emotional and cognitive situation is happening right now, not in the past and not in the future.

a. Exercise: To understand this, have a friend say “how can I help you” while you’re listening to the radio or television. If you’re alone, turn on the television or radio and try to read a book.

5. Be Mindful. Much of what has been discussed to this point can be fostered through mindfulness practice. Mindfulness is the meditative method that helps people to be present in the current moment with awareness and openness and without judgment. It helps us observe and describe what happens moment to moment, in a non-judgmental way, and ultimately helps develop a clearer understanding of and ourselves and our relationships, and helps us participate more effectively in life. Research shows convincingly that those who practice mindfulness experience increased empathy. Possible reasons responsible for this are that mindfulness improves our ability to bring our awareness to the present moment and to be non-judgmental with what we find there. Reducing stress could also be another way mindfulness helps us be more emapthic. When we’re stressed, we’re worried. When we’re worried we are focused on ourselves. When we’re focused on ourselves, we have less left over for anyone else, so we have less ability to be empathic. Again, research clearly shows that mindfulness reduces stress as it simultaneously improves our ability to be present in the moment and be more empathic.

6. Understand the Emotions and Thoughts: Most believe that an empathic understanding involves understanding how another person is feeling and what they are thinking, or their perspective. The latter refers to being able to step into another’s shoes and see life from their perspective. Hence, it is helpful to understand the difference between thoughts and feelings so you can identify them and have a deeper empathic understanding of the other person.

Thoughts vs Feelings. The simplest way to determine the difference between a thought and a feeling statement is to check and see if there is a feeling word in the sentence. It might be easiest to say “Every feeling has to feel” and “No thought has a feeling.” Now tell me if any of the following are feeling statements.

  1. I feel like no one understands me.
  2. I feel as though I am doing more than my co-workers.
  3. I feel as if I am going crazy with all I have to do in my life.

None of these describe feelings. They are all really thoughts made to seem like they are feeling statements because of the word “feel.” Here are the statements revised in a way that includes both feelings and thoughts.

  1. I think no one understands me (thought statement), and I feel sad and fearful about not being understood (feeling statement).
  2. I think I am doing more than my co-workers (thought statement), and I feel manipulated, put upon, and undervalued (feeling statement).
  3. I think I am going crazy with all I have to do for work, family, and myself (thought statement), and I feel stressed, overwhelmed, and frazzled (feeling statement).

Remember that an easy way to remember how to identify a thought versus a feeling is that a feeling statement requires a feeling word and a thought statement requires no feeling word.

So, in this post, we’re covered some specific strategies that can help you develop a more accurate empathic understanding of another person. Specifically, don’t think too much, be willing to experience unpleasant emotion, approach without judgment, be present in the moment, be mindful, and identify thoughts and feelings. My next post will be about what we can do after we’re empathic and provide empathic support to another person. These include being insuring we understand another person’s messages accurately, validating others, and communicating and negotiating more effectively.