Developing Empathy

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The word ‘empathy’ is used a lot these days in the context of supporting others.

It is an essential skill to develop for those whose professional roles involve helping those in some sort of distress, and also very useful in our personal relationships.

The terms empathy and sympathy are often confused. Both of the words are associated with the relationship a person has with the feelings and situations of another person.

Empathy involves the ability to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within that person’s own frame of reference; in other words, you are not considering their viewpoints from your own perspective, but seeing a situation from another’s position. The term is most often used to refer to the capacity or ability to imagine yourself in the situation of another, experiencing the emotions, ideas, or opinions of that person.

The establishment and maintenance of empathy is an important ingredient in having a good rapport with another person, helping others – and understanding how people think the ways that they do. It also helps to bring trust into the relationship.

In contrast, sympathy is used to convey commiseration, pity, or feelings of sorrow for someone else who is experiencing some sort of misfortune. Feeling sorry for a person generates feelings of pity, which is not helpful in situations where people are in pain. Sympathy is appropriate in extreme situations, such as bereavement or other traumas. However, for more chronic feelings of distress, being pitied is not what is best.

Empathy provides a bridge that connects two people together and creates a space for more genuine healing, understanding and compassion. By working on our empathy, it allows us to hear another’s point of view and spring us forward into automatically becoming more helpful.

Here are some tips for using empathy helpfully:

  1. Place aside your own point of view; see situations from the other person’s perspective

In doing this, it soon becomes clear that people are usually not being hateful, unreasonable, mean-spirited – or plain wrong.  They are probably just reacting to the situation with the experiences they have, just as you do.

  1. Respond to the other person’s point of view

Once you can see why the other person believes what he or she does, then you can acknowledge this. You do not need to agree with what has been said. Just accept that people have different opinions from your own, and that they may have understandable reasons for their views.

  1. Actively listen

Pay attention to to the entire message that the other person is trying to communicate.

    • Consider carefully what is being said, and the tone of expression.
    • Be aware of non-verbal communication – what is the person is indicating, non-verbally, while speaking.
    • Feelings expressed
    • Show that you are concentrating well by attending to your own body language, showing that you are fully present in this exchange. Facing the person, with occasional minimal responses, and the maintenance of soft eye contact, where culturally appropriate, sends important messages.
  1. Explore your own views.

Ask yourself if you are more motivated to win, get your own way, or be right. In contrast, you may want to find a solution, build relationships, and accept others’ attitudes. Empathy requires an open mind.

  1. Enable the examination of options

When you have shown that you have truly listened to the person, you may ask him or her to consider what options lie ahead.  It is important that the person takes ownership of the decisions made. This is empowering and promotes self-reliance. Passively taking your advice would be disempowering and reinforce inadequacy and reliance on other people.

Practising these skills on a daily basis brings huge benefits. Surprisingly, we often do not actively listen to our family and friends – often, because we are busy doing lots of things at once rather than communicating in a focused way. It is a great skill to be open to seeing the world from perspectives other than your own – and this skill can be used habitually for its best effects. When you validate and show appreciation of others’ viewpoints, they will probably want to understand you – and this is how you can start to build cooperation and mutual friendship and understanding. The development of empathy is one of the skills useful for people in helping or supporting roles. The Academy for Distances Learning provides a number of courses associated with Counselling Skills and Psychology.

By Iona Lister

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