Empathy is one of those words that gets tossed around without much explanation. Having empathy is said to improve your marriage, your career, your parenting skills, your emotional well-being, your friendships, and basically your life. It has become the emotional aspirin of our day.
But what does that really mean in the practical sense? How does a person show empathy in a way that is meaningful and transformative without being fake?
The technical definition of empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference, that is, the capacity to place oneself in another’s position. The problem with this definition is that it focuses on the receiver’s experience. The giver is still left confused with how to show empathy.
Empathy does not come naturally for everyone. A person born with a biological limitation might not have the ability to “feel” empathetic. Head injuries can also hamper a person’s ability to naturally show or feel empathy. Some family units or cultures do not value empathetic responses, so the response was not modeled or learned. Contrary to these extremes are empaths who have an abundance of natural empathy that they cannot turn off even when it is not welcomed.
So rather than looking at empathy from the receiver’s perspective, let’s examine it from the giver’s point of view. This allows for a better understanding of how to show empathy.
My definition of empathy is the subtraction of self for the benefit of another. Here are the five ways to do this.
- Know self. In order to subtract something, you must know that it exists. This is perhaps the most important step because it requires self-awareness and selflessness at the same time.
- Be aware. This requires being aware of your own thoughts and emotions. Intense emotions or obsessive thinking can hamper an ability to show empathy.
- Be present. Instead of focusing on what comes next or thinking about the past, it is important to be in the present moment.
- Know triggers. A lack of awareness of emotional triggers that could arise in a discussion often results in projection, rather than deflection. This is the opposite of empathy.
- Put aside. When you are aware, present, and know your triggers, all of this must be put aside for the benefit of the other person. None of the other steps are fully possible without completing this one.
- Example: Joe, a client, wanted healing from having grown up with a narcissistic parent. I too have experienced a narcissistic parent. So, it was important to be aware of my own emotional reactions when he recounted similar events, continue to be present and not live in my past, not project my reactions to the abuse onto him, and place on a fictional shelf my emotions and thoughts that needed to be processed later.
- Pay attention. It is common that when a person talks, the listener is often thinking about what they are going to say instead of what is being said. To be empathetic, you must observe what is going on and engage in active listening. The are three main areas to focus on are:
- The voice. Note any changes in pace, volume, or tone. Identify what is unusual about the speaker’s vocal inflection compared to their normal state. Changes in vocal quality combined with body language often send a stronger message than the words used.
- Body language. Anxiety, anger, aggression, regression, openness, resistance, confusion, distraction, sadness, fear, surprise, relaxed, ashamed, guilt, inferiority, embarrassed, overwhelmed, discouraged, hopeful, excited are all easily identified by specific body language cues. If you are unfamiliar with how a person shows one of these emotions, there are books on body language that can assist.
- The words. Ironically enough, most communication is done through the non-verbal process as listed above than verbal. However, it is important to note any repeated phrases, overuse of key emotional words (angry, guilty, sad), obsessive thinking, circular reasoning, blame-shifting, and intentional evasion.
- Example: Joe’s narcissistic mother taught to be constantly aware of what he was saying so as not to embarrass their family. As a result, when he first came into session, he said he had the “perfect childhood”. However, his shifting body language, a stressed tone, and desire to avoid discussing his past were all indicators that his childhood was not as perfect as he said.
- Changing perspective. In order to relate to someone else, it is important to view things from their perspective rather than your own. Sometimes to be aware of the differences, you might need to ask questions. It is better to ask than to assume.
- Culturally. Cultural differences exist from one country to another and from one region to another. Stereotypes are not productive and can do more harm than good.
- Religiously. Slight differences in religious beliefs can make the difference between understanding and insensitivity. Indifference towards a religious belief can come across as callousness.
- Personality. What is healthy behavior for an introvert, might be destructive behavior for an extrovert. Take time to assess basic differences and similarities in personality.
- Socioeconomically. While everyone has basic needs, the presence or absence of money can greatly impact a person’s perspective on the world.
- Environmentally. A child only knows what they see. So, what is a normal family dynamic for one person might not be the same for another.
- Example: Joe grew up in an affluent home with no siblings with family ties to relatives who came over on the Mayflower. Even though he had most everything he wanted, he was taught not to trust anyone because people were constantly trying to take advantage of his family. This fear was not paranoia but rather real due to some business partners that did try to steal from his family inheritance.
- Coming aside. Once the three steps listed above are done, the next step involves coming alongside a person rather than trying to fix the problem. This is what it means to relate to another person.
- Patience. Just because you are ready to listen does not mean the other person is ready to speak. Trying to force out a conversation is not productive and usually results in anger, resentment, or additional shutting down. Rather, be encouraging and wait for their timing.
- Understanding. Not everything that comes out of a person’s mouth makes sense, is logical, devoid of emotion, or kind. Understanding a person means taking everything into account that you already know about them and embracing their way of thinking or feeling.
- Compassion. One of the least compassionate things to do is to laugh when someone is crying. This extreme example demonstrates the value of expressing similar expressions of emotions regardless of how you might naturally feel.
- Shared journey. It is so important that the stories you share are not overshadowing to the person you are trying to show empathy. When sharing, pay attention to body cues of frustration, annoyance, distraction, or boredom, if you see them, stop talking. Body cues of relief, more openness, and hopefulness indicate that you have related well.
- Example: Joe thought that only his family acted this dysfunctional and as a result, he learned to isolate himself to a depressed level. When I shared a similar story of narcissism, the look of relief on his eyes said he all. He finally felt heard and understood in a way that was impactful and meaningful. Almost immediately, his anxiety diminished, and he shared even more from his past.
- When you release your “self”, pay attention to the other person, change your perspective towards theirs, and come along aside them in the journey, then a true connection is made. Here are some of the benefits of the relationship.
- Healing. Joe was able to find healing in the therapy process because of the consistent show of empathy. He began to feel more “normal” and discover aspects of himself that he was afraid to explore under the weight of his narcissistic parenting. He was able to forgive his parents and move forward in a healthy way.
- Bonding. This process of showing empathy allowed Joe to feel safe. Once he felt safe in a therapeutic environment, he was more willing to explore it in other areas of his life. About 6 months after therapy began, Joe met a wonderful woman that he would later marry.
- Transformation for both. Joe transformed his life through counseling, but I was also privileged to experience a change. Joe changed my understanding of having a narcissistic mother and gave me a greater awareness of how deeply this impacts a child. After all, the work of therapy is made easier when empathy is the focus.
It is my hope that this explanation of empathy from the giver’s perspective will help you to better show it in a way that is impactful. These are the aspects of empathy that can be learned, nurtured, and perfected.