Show You Care!
Put a Little EMPATHY in Your Heart
By Edward Leigh, MA
If you are facing a difficult situation, what would you want others to say to you? What would be helpful to hear? I would say it is a safe bet that you would want other people to try to understand what you are going through. That is the core of empathy. The dictionary defines empathy as “The action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experiences of another.”
Another way to look at empathy is to imagine that you are in another person shoes. Think to yourself, “What must it be like to experience what they are going through right now?” Figuratively speaking, putting yourself in the shoes of another person will give you tremendous insight into what that person is experiencing.
In today’s fast paced busy world, many people may feel that empathic responding is yet another item on an already too-busy to do list. They may think empathy is just “touchy feeling” stuff that is not necessary. However, empathy is a critical tool that must be used all the time.
Differences between Empathy & Sympathy
Many people erroneously think that empathy and sympathy are synonymous. They have some similarities, however there are critical differences between the two terms. As we have seen empathy involves trying to understand what another person is experiencing. However, sympathy is defined as “sameness of feeling; affinity between persons or of one person for another.” The key word is “sameness.”
People use empathy to enhance communication to improve the workplace environment, however sympathy can be emotionally draining and lead to people to the breaking point of burnout. Sympathy implies feelings that are shared with the others as if the pain belonged to both people: We sympathize with other human beings when we share and suffer with them.
When using empathy, we “borrow” the other person’s feelings to observe, feel, and understand them, however we do not to take them onto ourselves. We are an observer so we can come to understand how the other person feels.
Of course, sympathy is appropriate when discussing the death of a loved one. An appropriate sympathetic comment is, “I am sorry for your loss.”
These are the steps to incorporate empathy into our daily lives.
Recognize the presence of strong feelings in others. These feelings must never be ignored. We need to have our “empathy radar” on at all times to pick up on these feelings
Imagine how the person might be feeling. Take a few seconds to think about a feeling word or phrase, such as “anxious” or “upset.” (Whatever word or phrase the person uses, do not use the same word or phrase! For example, if the person states they are very tense, you do not want to say, “It sounds like you are very tense.” The person may think you are mocking them. Think of a synonym for the word “tense” such as “stressed out” or “anxious.”)
State our perception of the person’s feeling. Reflect back with a feeling word or phrase. Once you have found the word you think fits best, incorporate it to a sentence. Here are some sentence beginnings to get you thinking:
“Sounds like you are …”
“I imagine that must be …”
“I can understand that must make you feel …”
Examples to Try Out Your New Empathic Skills
Example #1: A co-worker states, “There is so much going to today. The new project has been overwhelming for me.”
Response: The person used the word “overwhelming.” They told you how they are feeling so now it is time to find a synonym for overwhelming. Let’s try the word, “stressed.” We could state, “Sounds like you are very stressed right now.”
Example #2: A co-worker states, “Last week, I fell in my driveway and now my arm and fingers are in pain. My doctor told me nothing is broken, but it will take several weeks to heal. It has been hard for me to use the computer, but I have all these reports to work on.”
Response: They gave a clue as to their feelings by stating the phrase, “hard for me.” You could state, “This situation must be very frustrating for you.”
What not to Say
It is important to accept what the person is saying and not discount it in any way. We must avoid comments like this:
“Don’t get so upset. It’s no big deal.”
“You think you have it bad. Look what happened to Bob last week.”
“Pull yourself together!”
We must acknowledge their situation and respond accordingly. We must accept their feelings.
After Empathy Add Ons
After you have shared an empathic statement with a person, there are additional items you can use to solidify your willingness to support a person through a difficult time.
Respect the person’s effort to cope. Most people are trying to deal with what ever issue they are faced with at the time. We need to emphasize we know they are working through the issues. We can offer a statement like this, “I know you have been trying to adjust to the new office policies.”
Offering partnership. We need to emphasize to people that we will work together on the issue. For example, we can say, “I’m committed to work with you to find the best solution” or “Let’s see what we can do together to solve the problem.”
Empathy is a simple and powerful tool to use. Never leave home without it!
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