Merriam-Webster defines empathy as “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also: the capacity for this.” Or, in more colloquial terms: the ability to walk in someone else’s shoes.
But how does this (arguably) uniquely human trait affect our personal and professional relationships? Empathy, as a key component of our social and emotional intelligence, helps us recognize others’ feelings, needs, desires, and perspective. Research tells us that this ability to understand other people is more indicative of success in the workplace and in our personal relationships than almost anything else.
The good news is that anyone can become more empathetic—and more fully develop relationships as a result. Here are some ideas to help you increase your empathy awareness.
Observe, Don’t Evaluate. Marshall B. Rosenberg, PhD, author of Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life, draws a distinction between evaluation and observation. When we evaluate, we are putting something or someone into a category or classification and, in so doing, are making a judgment. When we observe instead, we allow for possibilities—for choices. When we feel judged, we tend to shut down. On the other hand, when someone notices a behavior, we are more likely to be open to their ideas because they are objective and not judgmental.
Recognizing the difference between observing and evaluating takes awareness. Look at these two sentences:
- Susan is always late.
- Susan was late on Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday.
In the first sentence, there is an implied criticism; in the second, an observation. When we criticize, there is no space to understand others and their perspectives. When we observe, the space is there to learn and be curious. The next time you are in a situation that challenges you, stand back and observe. Do you find it easier to relate to the other person from a position of observation?
Listen, Be Curious, And Open Up. Did someone say something that piqued your curiosity? Ask the person more about it! When you ask, use open-ended, nonevaluative questions and see what happens. Examples of open-ended questions are: How do you feel about…? Tell me more! What do you think about…? Open-ended questions allow you to learn about the other person. When you hear something that you can relate to, share your feelings. Allow yourself some vulnerability. Although it might feel uncomfortable initially, your sharing will help the other person better understand you and your perspective. Now ask yourself, Do I understand the other person on a different level? What was it like for me to be vulnerable? What did the other person learn about me? Afterward, reflect on what you learned about the other person, yourself, and empathy.
Stand in Someone Else’s Shoes. The next time you see someone whom you would not ordinarily engage, think about what her life might be like. What is it like to be her? What does she see when she looks in the mirror? How does she feel when she gets dressed in the morning? Taking this a step further, consider putting yourself in a situation that would allow you to better understand people you may not ordinarily engage: volunteer at a soup kitchen or a senior center; if you do, enter into conversation with the people you are serving and notice what you learn from the experience.
Practice Gratitude. When you practice gratitude, you are open to different aspects of yourself and others and are able to view the world from a different perspective. This shift in perspective can make it easier to understand the emotions of another. What are you grateful for today?
Empathy is present in every facet of our lives. When we are conscious of it, we enrich our lives and the lives of others. This is true on both a personal and a global level. Empathy is the first step to a more peaceful world. How will you participate?
Denise King Gillingham, LMSW, ACC, CPM, is a certified coach and mediator. Denise creates and delivers programs for corporations and organizations throughout the United States and Europe on social and emotional intelligence and nonviolent communication. Her coaching clients span all corners of the globe and all walks of life—from the international business executive to the stay-at-home mom. Denise has coached more than 500 clients. She received her MSW degree from Columbia University and has worked as a family therapist at The Paine Whitney Clinic in New York. Denise earned an advanced certification in systems and relationship coaching and is CTI certified. She has also been a substance abuse therapist at the Bronx VA Medical Center in New York and had a private therapy practice in Prague, Czech Republic. Prior to receiving her MSW, Denise held various leadership roles in the financial services industry. Contact Denise at dkgcoaching.com.