They say out of the mouths of babes come long-forgotten wisdom. As a parent of a young child, I’m starting to appreciate this first hand.
I have a three year old. A three year old that is working through the physical and mental growing pains of adapting to life on this planet. In between the many moments of her kind sweet demeanor, there are explosive eruptions of rage as she struggles to communicate her preferences, points of view, or petitions.
Typically the battle ensues with everyone feeling immensely frustrated and exhausted. But the other day I stopped and looked at these meltdowns from a new perspective. It brought forth an epiphany. What my daughter wants more than anything is to be truly heard and for others to understand and appreciate her perspective.
She’s begging for empathy.
What is Empathy
Empathy is the ability to understand and feel what others are feeling. It’s more than offering kind words of pity or sorrow. That’s sympathy. Empathy instead is much more visceral. It’s when you can vividly imagine walking in another’s shoes and living out their experiences as if they were your own. You know you have empathy when you feel it in your heart a little.
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So when I think again of my daughter and her fits of frustrations, I imagine what it would be like. To be new to a situation or environment with limited capacity and power to communicate my wants and needs. Or even the permission to execute on them. And to make matters worse, to be around others who don’t have the same appreciation for the angst.
It would be like being placed in a social straitjacket but still expected to behave “normally”. So, I get it. Her outbursts of frustration are warranted...and understandable.
Eliciting Empathy in Others
For the rest of us, however, we can’t act out our frustrations like an ornery three year old. We all have life experiences that test our resolve and build our character. We accept that that’s a part of life but the affirmation doesn’t make the emotions that accompany our ordeals any less vivid.
So if we all acknowledge this perspective about universal struggle, wouldn’t it be comforting if everyone we interacted with could at least try to appreciate the path that we walk? It may be a grand wish but we can at least start small.
It may begin with how we talk with one another. We express kindness when we have empathetic conversations. Conversations that put our issues and concerns on the backburner and open ourselves up to appreciating the experiences of others. We prioritize seeking to understand over being understood.
Expressing Empathy Can Be Difficult
But having empathetic conversations can sometimes be hard. For some, it’s difficult to suspend their own reality in order to step into the existence of someone else. Especially when they feel the weight of their own problems consuming their mind space. Or for others, examining another’s situation filled with raw emotions is too unnerving. Sometimes we’d rather not go there.
Despite these challenges, however, we can all aim to practice some amount of empathy in every conversation we have. Not only is it considerate, but it also pays long-lasting dividends. Nothing brings about trust between people like having safe and honest conversations wrapped in a sincere gesture of empathy. Additionally, if we wish to be on the receiving end of such kindness one day, it requires our actions to serve as the best model for others to emulate.
Following are five ways we can be more empathetic in our conversations. It starts with being mindful and practicing empathetic listening.
1 - Put Away Your Distractions
When conversing with another give the courtesy of your undivided attention. Not only should you put away your phone, but you should also empty your mind of your own preoccupations. Being present also means blocking out inevitable distractions that can hijack your attention like phone alerts, crying babies, or distracting colleagues. Give the kind of focused attention you would appreciate if their situation was your own.
2 - Have Curiosity and Care for Their Story
Listen with focused curiosity. As if their words would reveal vital information to keeping you alive. Hang on their words with compassion and let your voice and body language confirm that you are present and deeply engaged in their story. Do less than 20 percent of the talking and instead ask questions to help draw out what they want or need to share.
3 - Recognize Your Judgments and Biases
Be mindful that your thinking about any situation can be skewed. We all have paradigms that shape how we see the world but our judgments can be impermeable barriers that don’t allow empathy to pass through.
It’s unproductive to make judgments of our judgments so let’s instead try to be cognizant that our perspective isn’t, by default, correct. Remember your interpretation of a situation that you don’t know intimately will always be flawed. If you need motivation to keep this top-of-mind, remember a time when you felt unfairly misunderstood.
4 - Repeat What You Think You Heard
Even if you try your hardest to listen with focus, compassion, and objectivity you can still get the message wrong. This could be about poor communicating on their part as much as poor listening on your part. It could also be an injection of their own biases in their explanations.
The safest bet is to periodically confirm what it is you think you heard. For your conversation partner, hearing you recap the message using slightly different language may give them a different perspective. But at the very least reconfirming the message and intent keeps the conversation focused on the issues at hand.
5 - Don’t Try to Solve Their Problems
One reason I think people appear to lack empathy is that they feel discomfort with discussing someone else’s problems. Problems they can’t fix. They may reason that if they can’t solve a problem, what's the use in even discussing it. So instead they offer superficial reassurances as a way to offer comfort without the emotional complications.
But what everyone should remember is that empathy does not require problem-solving. It simply requires listening and being present. No talking is even necessary. Instead, be a sounding board where all that matters are their words, not yours.
Acknowledge When You’re on the Receiving End of Empathy
Expressing empathy in our conversations can and should be a two-way street. The time will come when you will need some empathy. Hopefully, you’ll be surrounded by kindness and you’ll get what you need. At such a time, you will come to know how relieving and comforting it is to receive such support.
But when the dust settles don’t let these heartfelt gestures go unrecognized. When the time is right, return to your confidante and express your appreciation for their compassion. Tell them specifically what they did or said that brought you the most comfort. Was it the words they used or was it simply their presence when you just needed to cry or scream?
Communicating this recognition and appreciation is an invaluable gift. People want to know that the words they say or the actions they take matter. It gives them confirmation that their participation in someone else’s life makes a difference. Hopefully, this spurs on a realization that community is the lifeblood of our wellbeing. And that the pursuit of our greatest fulfillment is directly tied to the interconnection of our lives.
The next time you become engaged in a conversation that warrants some empathy, try to use one or two of the suggestions from this article. After the conversation, reflect on how you felt being so focused on expressing empathy. Also, consider how your conversation partner responded to you.
Describe a time when you were on the receiving end of compassion and empathy. How did it make you feel?
Please share your story with us in the comments below.