This month’s article will be the first of a two-part series. After pondering the word “empathy” and to what extent this word is useful in our home, schools, community and personal lives, I have wondered if more people understood empathy and applied it to relationships with others, if there would be less anger, arguing, fighting, impatience, and unkindness, and more an actual understanding of and helping of others.
In recent years doing group work with people of various ages, I have noticed that few group members understood empathy and how it could be useful in their lifestyle. Many often think, “It’s like sympathy ,isn’t it?” Well, not exactly. Empathy means experiencing what someone else is feeling. It comes from the German word “einfuhlung,” or “feeling into.” It requires an emotional component of really feeling what the other person is feeling.
Effective empathy requires the skill of controlling your urge to respond and the skill of being present with the other person in the conversation. Most of us rarely think to acknowledge empathy as a way of consciously listening while the other person is talking. Instead, we usually respond to an upset person by giving advice, words of encouragement or words of comfort…just simple ways of trying to help. While these may be well-meant responses, they interfere with the other person’s talking.
These responses come from our thinking about how to help rather than thinking about what the speaker’s words mean to them. We must consider being “present” with the speaker rather than thinking of a way of helping while the person is talking. When listening to another person during a conversation, “we usually find it difficult to wait.” To develop the ability to listen, wait, and encourage the other to talk without interrupting is a critical skill (Bookbinder and Johnson).
For example, during AA or NA meetings, men and/or women talk more freely about their drinking or drug problem than they would with most people. I believe that a major reason support groups are popular is that members “feel less alone with their problem because of the opportunities to talk about it with people who listen with empathy. You honor the person talking when you spend the time to listen and put forth the energy to pay attention.”
Research on conversations has found that the person not talking usually starts talking about nine-tenths of a second after the other person stops. Being more aware of opportunities to switch from talking to listening expands your consciousness and choice (Bookbinder, PhD).
To communicate empathy takes time and practice. When are useful times to use this skill? One instance is when you sense the topic is important to the other person and the other person is experiencing emotion. With increased use of empathy, listening skills and patience, you can expect a positive and powerful impact on your relationships. Current relationships most likely will be reinforced and improved. This is easy to understand and often hard to do.
An exercise that can be useful is to find a partner and set a timer for a minute or two. Have your partner talk about any subject while you listen without interrupting. When the timer beeps, they stop talking and you summarize their words and feelings expressed. When finished, discuss the experience. What was it like for you? What was it like for your partner? Reverse roles and repeat.
You may be surprised to find yourself struggling to wait for the beep before you talk.
I have many times over the years as I have been involved in individual therapy, group work and class instruction felt that empathy should be taught not only at home, but in our school system, beginning in elementary school and completing in high school. I believe that ongoing practice, role playing and demonstration of supporting each other would be invaluable. Many, many clients over the years have also expressed that “empathy” should be taught in schools. Just possibly, it could make a difference in how a person thinks, acts and behaves.
My favorite quote on empathy is from my mother, who stated time after time so eloquently, “A philosophy for living your life: people may not remember what you did or what you said, but they will always remember how you made them feel.”