Empathy and how to practice it

There’s that word again: empathy. It’s buzzing this year. Forbes named it the No. 1 skillset to shift in 2021.

“Empathy is connecting to the emotions that underpin an experience, not necessarily having to connect to the experience itself.” — professor and author Brené Brown, Dare to Lead

A friend of mine, in New York City, was recently diagnosed with the coronavirus. During a Zoom call, he was struggling to stay engaged and was coughing a lot. He apologized and said he didn’t understand how he got the virus because he was completely isolated from everyone and took the proper precautions when going outside.

While I have not contracted the virus, I do know what it’s like to be quarantined and the sacrifices it takes. Could I imagine what it would feel like for all of that effort to be in vain?

I told him, “You must feel frustrated and helpless. Like you did something wrong, when all you did was try to do the right things.” He reacted with a deep sigh, smiled at me, warmly, and said, “That’s exactly it!” He felt seen, heard and not alone.

Much like this story, the steps to practicing empathy are as follows:

• Perspective-taking, to see the world as others see it.

• Be nonjudgmental, refrain from judgment and assume the best in someone.

• Recognize emotion, to understand another person’s feelings.

• Communicate that emotion, to speak your understanding of that person’s feelings.

Missing the Mark on Empathy

There’s a difference between empathy and sympathy. Empathy fuels connection, while sympathy drives disconnection. Empathy is a vulnerable choice. To connect with you, I have to connect with something in myself that knows that feeling. On the other hand, sympathy is a silver lining.

Examples of sympathetic language look like:

• “I had a miscarriage.” “Well, at least you know you can get pregnant.”

• “I think my marriage is falling apart.” “But you’re lucky! At least you have a marriage.”

• “My son got kicked out of school.” “At least your daughter is an A student.”

Empathy is feeling with people. Sympathy is feeling for them.

Try This at Home

Now that we can define it, how do we practice it? Below are specific phrases, and common empathy language, you can use. Pick out one, or two, that feel natural to you and try them this month.

• I know that feeling and it stinks. Me, too.

• I think a lot of us experience that. You’re not alone.

• That sounds really difficult.

• I wish you didn’t have to go through that.

• I’m on your side.

• I understand why you would feel that way. I would, too.

• Wow. That must have hurt.

• I don’t even know what to say right now. I’m just so glad you shared with me.

Rarely can a response make something better, what makes something better is connection. Remember, empathy is not the response you give but the connection you share. ♦

Kim Linton is the owner of 1Light Daring Leadership & Facilitation. She works with individuals, and teams, who want to make work in a modern, courageous and intentional way. She is a certified Dare to Lead facilitator and provides agile, repeatable and profitable solutions for teams. Reach
her at kim@weare1light.com
and see more at weare1light.com.

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