Empathy. Being empathetic isn’t something you hear much about anymore. In fact, what does it even mean to have empathy? Put simply, empathy is the ability to see the world through the eyes of another. But true empathy is something more than just that.
A highly empathetic person senses the emotions of those around them, and has the ability to tap into those same emotions within themselves. In essence, they “become” the person they’re empathizing with by truly experiencing their emotions.
The Difference Between Empathy and Sympathy
When you’re sympathetic, you might feel pity for the other person’s situation, but there’s still a distance between you and their experience.
But when you’re empathetic, you don’t just know how someone else feels; you understand how they feel, and you feel it with them.
Because of this, empathy is a rare skill. In fact, it goes back generations before us; to those who grew up in a time when sharing feelings and hardships was the natural (and often only) way to form connections with others.
When we express empathy, it facilitates those genuine human connections like nothing else can; and when another person perceives you as empathetic, they feel understood, respected, and valued. As a result, you establish yourself as someone who is memorable, likeable, and trustworthy.
But the benefits don’t stop there.
Why Empathy is Vital in Generating Referrals for Your Business
However, empathy can — and should — also be practiced in our professional relationships.
When you express empathy, you are delivering an experience to people that they’re not just listened to; they’re heard. And because they’re heard, they’re understood.
This gives your network a sense of connection and safety directly associated with you, ultimately laying the foundation for them to trust you with their business.
5 Tips to Become a More Empathetic Person
And here’s the best part of all of this: Empathy is a skill, and skills can be learned if they’re practiced. So let’s talk about five ways you can begin practicing empathy today.
#1. (Actively) Listen More Than You Speak.
Most of us speak at least twice as much as we listen. It’s easy to get so caught up explaining something that we fail to stop and consider what the other person might be thinking or feeling.
And empathetic person, on the other hand, listens first; and only speaks after they’ve carefully heard. We call this Active listening.
Here are five steps you can take to become a better listener:
And here’s the best part: Although people often uncover their own solutions whilst talking with an empathetic person, they often end up attributing that solution anyway. So even if you did very little in the conversation, the other person probably won’t see it that way.
#2: Express Your Perspective
After you’ve heard the other person out, you’re in an excellent position to express empathy by voicing how you’d feel in that same situation. For example:
These comments are all great ways to show you understand how the other person is feeling. The catch is that these statements must be genuine.
So try to imagine exactly what the other person is going through. Put yourself in their shoes, experience the moment as if it were happening to you, and let your emotions guide you.
Once you feel those emotions, voice them. More often than not, your emotional response will be very similar to theirs; and this will cause the other person to feel understood and heard, leading to a greater sense of connection between you both.
#3: Be Vulnerable
Too many professional conversations stay in emotional “Safe zones.”
We fear vulnerability because we worry that others may perceive us as foolish or weak. Brené Brown — a brilliant woman at the forefront of vulnerability research — disagrees. Brown says that vulnerability actually helps us connect with others, because it communicates that we’re human; complete with our own weaknesses, hurts, and fears. This creates a feeling of “sameness” that gives the other person something to connect to.
As Shana Lebowitz points out in this brilliant feature, even Benjamin Franklin noticed this pattern, stating “He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another than he whom you yourself has obliged.”
Put simply: Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Asking for help shows vulnerability, and vulnerability often leads to that greater sense of connection and relation.
By sharing our own insecurities and mistakes, we connect through our common humanity; and this common ground is one of the most important foundations you can lay in a relationship.
#4: Don’t Make Assumptions
Assumptions are the enemy of empathy.
To have assumptions is to harbor preconceived notions that are not based on true understanding or experience.
Often, we use assumptions as shortcuts to solve a problem, such as understanding a new contact. But when we take shortcuts, we don’t get to see the full picture. And as a result, we don’t actually “solve” the problem.
Here’s why assumptions are dangerous to empathy: When you make an assumption, the understanding you draw is rarely a good match to the problem this person is facing. As a result, the connection you try to make feels forced and unnatural.
No surprise, this often leaves the other person thinking something like, “She just doesn’t understand my situation,” or, “He’s not someone I should turn to in the future because he doesn’t listen.”
As you might imagine, these types of conclusions often cause people to withdraw. So don’t rush empathy, and don’t try and empathize before you truly understand the situation. Take an extra five minutes to listen and ask questions before trying to connect with the other person.
So don’t rush empathy, and don’t try and empathize before you truly understand the situation. Take an extra five minutes to listen and ask questions before trying to connect with the other person.
#5: Use Your Imagination
Here’s the problem: You’re not going to be able to relate to every single experience from every single person you encounter. But to truly empathize, you still need some form of connection and understanding.
The ability to imagine what someone else is feeling — even if we haven’t experienced it ourselves — is critical to empathy. And one way to develop this skill is to develop your imagination.
If you enjoy reading, I recommend picking up a book and really focusing on the character’s actions and feelings. Some of the true literary classics, like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, can be great studies into the full range of human emotions.
Remember: Developing Empathy is a Skill
At first, this whole practice may feel unnatural and unwieldy.
Don’t worry: That’s natural. Empathy is a skill, and any skill feels a little cumbersome at first. But the more you do it, the more natural it’ll become and the less conscious thought it’ll demand.
Keep at it and I promise: You’ll get there; and the relationships you’ll build and connections you’ll form will be worth it.