“Resolve to be tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving, and tolerant of the weak and the wrong. Sometime in life you will have been all of these.” – George Washington Carver on Empathy
Empathy is a pillar of conscious communication. Yes, some people are naturally more empathetic than others, but it is not confined to the realms of natural ability. Empathy can be learned and developed by anyone with the will to do so.
Having empathy is so much more than simply caring for another. Expressing empathy and understanding is the key to building relationships, supporting friends and colleagues, trust, healing and even productivity. A work, or indeed home environment where people feel safe to express their worries and woes is a place that encourages healthy wellbeing and support systems.
Even if you are empathetic as a person, which I consider myself to be so, there are still times when you will fall short of this. Being generally empathetic is different to being consciously empathetic. Choosing to be constructively caring and open in a focused and conscious way is very important, and generally quite easy to do. Here are some examples of how to manifest empathy in a focused way…
1. Listen with Intent
Often we hear but don’t listen. One of the most important things when demonstrating conscious empathy is to listen really well. This means to listen without letting your mind wander to what you feel your response should be. How often do we drift off half way through somebody else’s sentence because we are now waiting for an opportunity to jump in with our opinions?
Also, when you listen with intent, you are showing the other person that you are fully investing your attention with them. And when you reply, do not be afraid of taking a moment to gather your thoughts in order to respond carefully and usefully.
2. Consider More Than Their Words
Look for other forms of communication. This is especially important with vulnerable people, or with people you do not know so well. What does their body language say? Do they seem to feel comfortable talking to you? If they don’t spear to be so, is there something you can do to help? Offering a drink or a seat, for example. Try and notice the whole person, not just the content of their words.
3. Other People’s Shoes
Sometimes one of the most difficult things about empathy is not agreeing fully with the views or decisions of the other person. Sometimes your opposition is unavoidable, but in many cases, putting yourself in their shoes helps you to understand their plight a little better. Always try your best to see where they are coming from.
Invite the other person in. This can be done through the simplest of gestures; a smile. A smile says, ‘you are safe’, ‘I am comfortable with this situation’ and ‘you can trust me’. Do not underestimate the power of a smile and an open face. Appearing to be relaxed and understanding is also a simple way to gain trust and offer a safe space for the other person to get something off their chest, without judgement.
5. Advise Without Instructing
If somebody comes to you asking for guidance, it is easy to simplify your answer; ‘why don’t you just do this?’ It is important, when advising with empathy, not to judge and not to deal in absolutes. To be empathetic we can sympathise with others, and tell them what we think might be a helpful path. But the most empowering and useful path to set them on is one that they come to themselves. Do your best to guide them to a place where they find the answers based on their own decision making and their unique experience.
6. You Don’t Have to Fix It!
If someone needs to offload on you, very often, that is all that they need. Do not feel that you must always have the answer for them, because you may not have it. Indeed, always needing to fix things may lead to you giving poor advice. Just be there for them without feeling the need to close the case!
By Chris Thomson
Going to someone to offload in a time of stress is a great way to avoid burnout. Here are a few other tips on how to avoid such a thing: Workplace Resilience: How to Avoid Burnout
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