How to Train Your Empathy for Deeper Connections
“Before you judge a man, walk a mile in his shoes.”
This age-old idiom has permeated society for generations, drawing its roots back to a Mary T. Lathrap poem in 1895. So, why does this century-old adage still echo with relevance today?
Because it speaks to the deepest part of human connection. Connecting, and feeling valued, by understanding someone else’s experiences, challenges, and thought processes.
In effect, practicing empathy.
This week, as part of our Emotional Intelligence Series, we will provide you with two strategies to use in any conversation that will hone your empathy, and allow you to establish greater human connection.
Definition: The ability to understand what others are feeling and thinking, as well as their motivations. Also, to identify with that person by “putting yourself in their shoes.”
To cultivate your empathy, practice the two strategies below in everyday conversations to connect more profoundly and to make others feel understood & valued.
Strategy #1: Explore the why
At its core, demonstrating empathy means that we are trying to understand how another person feels, whether they experience a positive or negative emotion, and to feel with them.
One of the best ways to do this is to understand their why. Once you’ve identified their emotion, ask yourself: Why does this fellow human being feel the way they do? What, in their life, is causing them to feel this emotion?
Everybody is going through something; empathizing with the what’s going on in them is the quickest way to connect. As a result of that empathic connection, we are better able to deepen relationships with one another, both at home and at work. Follow these simple steps to explore the why behind empathy.
Putting it Into Practice
If you want to empathize quickly and meaningfully with anyone, ask questions that help you learn their why. This may come from a simple conversation, where you start by genuinely ask about their day.
Upon truly listening, as you’ll learn more about with Strategy #2, find a topic to focus on based on their perceived interest level. Then, when you’ve identified what they might like to talk more about, explore the why by asking a variation of any question below.
- How did you feel when X happened?
- What exactly do you mean when you say Y?
- Or simply ask, “Why is that?”
When people notice you taking interest in their lives by asking probing questions, their emotions rise to the surface, creating an opportunity for a significant empathic connection.
Strategy #2: Listen.
Don’t take this strategy lightly. When you listen, try to identify the idea, feeling, or fear they are sharing with you.
Sometimes, our job is easy, and we don’t even have to respond. If another person shares a frustration and notices you truly hearing and empathizing with them, that’s often all they need. To simply have someone listen to their frustrations
Consider. When your significant other comes home after a long day and vents, ask yourself, what are they needing from me?
Believe it or not, people don’t talk just to fill silence. When they share, that’s exactly it. They are sharing a piece of themselves with us, hoping we can pick up on their underlying needs, and empathize with them.
Ultimately, people just want to be listened to and understood.
When trying to listen with empathy, let the following recommendations echo in your mind during your conversations. If you don’t execute them all perfectly, the first time, that’s okay! Respond by showing Tempathy for yourself, through self-forgiveness and practice.
Moreover, know that the more you utilize these skills, the easier it will be to empathize with others.
Putting it Into Practice
Don’t Interrupt. Period. – The Golden Rule to listening is that you spend more time listening than talking. Unsurprisingly, the goal of listening is to learn, and to then use that knowledge to make an informed decision. If we interrupt them to splice in our own thoughts, then we aren’t really learning how to help that other person.
As one Inc article succinctly puts it: “The minute they stop talking is the minute you stop learning.”
Focus on their why – Incorporate the methods you learned in Strategy #1 to learn what they are trying to say, and to demonstrate a genuine interest in their well-being.
Ask Good Questions – In many cases, the person talking may not even know their why. But they do recognize that a need of theirs isn’t being filled, which leads them to turn to you for help. Hence, treat their trust in you as a gift, by helping them to explore what their needs are.
This starts with focusing on their why and asking helpful questions.
Simple Agreement is not Listening – Why does the term “yes-man” have a negative connotation? Because, through always agreeing and never adding input, these people don’t appear to think for themselves. This provides neither value to others nor empathic connection.
Even if you find yourself disagreeing with them, share your thoughts honestly and compassionately. Challenging them denotes a sign of empathy, because it demonstrates a concern for the other person and a desire to help.
Resist the Urge to Provide a Solution – Just like with a long-term business strategy, solutions to complex problems take time. And the first step to a solution is to understand the problem fully.
Similarly, making empathic connection is a complex problem. And if you prematurely offer a solution, without fully exploring that other person’s needs or motivations, you’re essentially trying to solve a puzzle with missing pieces.
Just by listening, you help the other person concretize their thoughts and take a step closer to discovering a solution.
Empathize by Listening for the Why
When we interact with others, we often don’t really hear them because we are too worried about what WE will say next. Unfortunately, this immediately takes us out of the listening mentality and makes it immensely more difficult to empathize and connect.
Luckily, we can easily change our listening habits. To start your empathy journey, practice these two strategies together to build that personal connection.
First, using Strategy #1 during a conversation, pick something that seems important to the other person and explore the why behind it.
Then, use Strategy #2 to empathetically listen to what they’re telling you.
Given practice, you may surprise yourself by how others more readily open up to you. And by how easily you’re able to feel with, and truly get to know, the people around you.
If you enjoyed this article on Empathy…
Empathy is a core component of emotional intelligence, which represents an incredibly broad category and requires time and effort to hone.
In this series, we break down the 5 competencies of Emotional Intelligence (EI), along with two strategies for developing each competency, and specific exercises/applications you can practice daily to increase your EI.
The previous article explained why self-awareness forms the foundation of strong emotional intelligence.
Also, keep an eye out for our next Emotional Intelligence Series article on How to Harness Your Emotions with Self-Regulation.