Elements of Empathy

A key aspect of increasing your level of productivity and success is your ability to work well with other people. Central to that is your skill at recognizing and honoring their emotions. We call this ability “empathy.”

As I wrote recently, the right kind of empathy is a major accelerant of productivity: It gets you on the same page with others, helps you see through others’ eyes, and strengthens motivation while reducing conflict and miscommunication. I detailed other benefits of empathy, as well.

People who read that piece asked me so nicely for more tips on growing your empathy that I couldn’t refuse. So let’s dive deeper into the practice of empathy and how to get better at it.

Empathy Ain’t Easy for Some

Some of us have an easy time reading and reacting to other people. But some of us don’t. There are many reasons for this, including the aptitudes we’re born with, how we are brought up, and our personal experiences in social situations.

One reason empathy ain’t easy is it requires, first of all, you be open to learning about other people, their experiences, and their feelings. What’s more, it entails caring about and valuing other people, which is why nearly everyone can more easily empathize with a loved one or close friend than with a total stranger.

In addition, empathy takes effort. To empathize, you have to pay close attention to other people. You must also take some time and think about the signals they’re sending and how to interpret them most accurately.

Fortunately, there are elements of empathy that you can cultivate and – with practice – significantly strengthen your empathic abilities.

Let’s consider each of these elements:

Your Innate Reactions

The foundation of empathy lies within your own body. Whenever you’re in someone’s presence, or you learn about someone, you’re likely to have a physical reaction. This reaction can have many components: an instinctual feeling such as fear, revulsion, or respect, and an emotive feeling such as affection or dislike, distrust, contempt, happiness, sadness, and so forth.

It’s so natural and normal to have immediate, strong reactions to other people that it’s counter-productive to try ignoring or denying them.

Your Embrace of Those Reactions

Your physical reactions will greatly color your desire and ability to empathize with the other person(s). But they nearly always happen subconsciously.

So a key element in strengthening your ability to empathize is to notice those innate reactions and embrace them. Positive or negative, they are the building blocks of your empathic connections with other people.

Your Pause to Consider

Noticing your reactions is helpful, and so is embracing them. It’s equally important, however, to take a moment and differentiate between what you are experiencing on your own and what thoughts and feelings you are picking up from another person.

For example, a person may be talking to you about a situation that makes them fearful or sad. You may start feeling an echo of their emotion without actually experiencing fear or sadness in your own work and life.

On the other hand, the other person may be triggering certain reactions in you that have nothing to do with what you are picking up empathically. For example, a person expressing sadness or fear may trigger feelings of trust or affection in you, or may cause you to feel glad you’re not facing their situation. You may feel close to the other person and desire to protect them from their troubles.

Differentiating between your own feelings and those you’re picking up from the other person is extremely helpful, because it’s far less taxing and difficult to empathically “hold their hand” and be helpful than to empathically “walk in their shoes” so thoroughly you experience their thoughts and feelings as your own.

Step Into Your Empathy

Having felt a reaction to the other person, embraced it, and considered which feelings are your own and which are empathic “echoes” of the other person’s thoughts and emotions, you are in a position to offer a response that can be of value.

What you offer, however, depends greatly on your own emotions, your relationship to the other person, and how much involvement you are willing to accept.

Among the empathic responses you can offer are the following:

  • A willing and sensitive ear: in times of difficulty, complexity, or uncertainty, a person often wants only “to be heard;” your attention itself is a major benefit to them.
  • A physical touch and/or a hug: humans regularly need friendly touching and/or hugging, which provides a feeling of acceptance and comfort we are likely to appreciate. This is a great response when people are experiencing joy, as well.
  • Questions and direction toward logical analysis: people who find themselves in metaphorical “deep water” often want and benefit from help in thinking through their situation so they can develop their own best responses to it.
  • Information and advice: As the metaphorical water gets deeper, a person may desire more substantive help from loved ones, friends, or colleagues with relevant knowledge, experience, and understanding to share.
  • Resources and other forms of support: there are times when people literally need time, money, food, shelter, or other resources they lack to help them get through larger, extra complex difficulties that would otherwise overwhelm them.
  • Leadership and rescue: this is more of a parental role you can offer people who find themselves in situations too demanding for them to handle on their own.

Empathy never requires you to give more than you want, and you should think carefully before responding to others in a way that makes your own situation worse. Although you can’t make everyone’s life a paradise, empathy is a worthwhile attribute to cultivate. It’s the glue that holds humanity and society together.

At bottom, strengthening these abilities and offering empathic responses to others is a simple way to build the kind of relationships that ultimately bolster your own work and life while also making the world a better place.

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