How well can you “feel yourself into the other person’s shoes” with empathy in your communication skills? You know, eyes off yourself and on to them so you can really connect?
If someone were to ask how much empathy you have, what might the answer be? Are you considered to be empathetic? How does that manifest? How aware are you of your empathy towards others? Is this one of your “people skills strengths”? Does empathy differentiate the quality of your communication skills? Or are you “too busy” for that?
Empathy in perspective
Today I would like to take the topic of communication skills to another level of intensity. However, let us first find some definitions of empathy to get us started.
One I found suggested that empathy is: “the ability to co-experience and relate to the thoughts, emotions or experience of another without them being communicated directly by the individual”. This suggests empathy is “felt”, and usually by both parties.
To me, empathy is the one of cornerstones in genuine human relationships. Empathy is conscious. It means one with empathy feels compassion, while those without do not take into account other people’s emotions or feelings.
I love the German word for empathy: “Einfuehlungsvermoegen” which again loosely translated suggests to me it is “the ability or capacity to feel ones way into the other person’s state” or put differently, “to put oneself into the other persons shoes” or “tuning into their world”.
Empathy is often confused with sympathy, probably because both involve compassion. While sympathy might be the expressing of sorrow for someone else’s suffering or situation or condition, suggesting the wanting to prevent or alleviate their suffering or pain, empathy is more about having a personal understanding of the situation or condition they are experiencing, as if personally experiencing it or having experienced it.
As a coach, sympathy is used quite rarely, because then we would be allowing ourselves “to jump into that person’s pit with them” thereby losing the distance objectivity we always bring to the party. However, a coach will usually have and use a very strong sense of empathy.
In my diplomacy training I like to use empathy as a concept to “see things from the other person’s perspective”, highlighting that there can always be many more views to something than just our own.
This is particularly relevant when we are dealing with different cultures, so as to eradicate the arrogance sometimes present that we expect others to be or see things the way we are.
I like to use the example of expecting others to speak English when we are travelling in their country. (Many to one) Quite arrogant, isn’t it? This is particularly evident in Europe, where most people seem to speak multiple languages, one of which is usually English. (One to many)
My experience has been that when outlining our request we at least try to cobble some words and sentences together in their language that they usually react with empathy at our struggles and respond in English. But at least we displayed a willingness to “have a go”. And this approach will often improve the rapport between us. They will often feel compassion for our linguistic struggle and offer to help, don’t they? Empathy.
When we are using our communication skills to build rapport with another or with others, our cause is so much better supported if we have an open and friendly, that is engaging approach, right? Finding aspects of the conversation where we are able to display compassion for their feelings or their situation is extremely valuable to help “win them over”. Empathy.
I have learned that empathy and judgement are poor bedfellows. I don’t believe there can be genuine empathy in the presence of judgement. Judgement suggests falling short of, meeting or exceeding certain standards – often our self righteous standards, right? Can we really impose those on others?
Conversely, if we felt judgement coming up, could we not apply Using “the Gap” to reframe yourself and expand the possibilities by asking ourselves what different ways there might be of looking at this? How might the other person be looking at this differently?
Do we really know what might be occurring in another person’s life, when we judge them on or for something? If someone cut’s us off in the traffic or “pushes in” in front of us we can get really annoyed or even angry, right? How do we know why they might be doing that? Our ego probably suggests to us that they are “muscling in” on our space, that they have “slighted our position”, right? However, how do we know whether they might not have an emergency necessitating them to hurry to get somewhere? And does having one of more cars more or less ahead of us really make that much of a difference? Empathy.
In one of the above definitions the word “genuine” features. To me this is key in really good communication skills and relationship skills. We can use all sorts of tactics and techniques to excercise or assert our influence, many of which can indeed assist us in “winning” short term gains or outcomes.
When I speak of empathy however, I am talking about a level of genuine interest, of “caring” and compassion that is quite different. We usually deal with intellectually clever people in business, right? People that can easily see through contrived influence or manipulation.
Genuine alignment with who they are and what they are expressing and genuine compassion for that person or their situation or position requires respect and us honouring them at a level of connection that is not so common. However, when we are able to connect at this level of “feeling” then real empathy is possible and the level of communication and the strength of that relationship is taken to another level completely. This doesn’t happen in a heartbeat – it takes time. But it is possible to develop, if we want to develop it. In the presence of rapport, anything is possible. Empathy is an integral part of that, if it is genuine.
Anyone experiencing the level of empathy I’m talking about here will respond accordingly. And if you are groomed to this level of communication skill your relationships and outcomes will most definitely transcend the “average”.
Of course this is a two way street, and my clients learn that empathy has to be “earned” in terms of the effort the other person is willing to invest in the conversation and the relationship.
One of the most fundamental “people skills” I teach is active listening. By that I mean to pay the speaker my undivided attention; to honour them to understand I believe they have something to say and that what they have to say is worth listening to; without interruption, so that they can comfortably complete their thoughts and freely articulate them to their logical conclusion. That has become quite rare to experience someone allowing us that, hasn’t it?
Just check in with yourself quickly – how well do you rate yourself in that? Are you listening?
This form of listening hears and seeks to understand what is being said, but also what is not being said and listens beyond the words. I call that “listening with all our senses” so as to include body language, tone, gesture, posture, etc in the sending and receiving of signals. Including all the unconscious level signals as well. Doing so also allows us to become more aware of the feelings underlying or precipitating that person’s current communication, for which we can then display empathy. We can’t do that if we don’t pick that up by not listening in the first place.
Can you see the level of impact this form of empathy can have on our communication? Can you hear the difference? Can you feel the improved response? Could you perhaps find and observe some examples in the coming week?
So what if you had a go at this in this coming week? You know, to really listen to the people you are speaking with that you care about and whose relationships are important to you? What if you allowed a deeper level of rapport to emerge that was further strengthened through your empathy? Your caring about who they are and what is driving them?
What if it raised your communication to another level that created a whole new set of outcomes for you (and for them)?
What if you could?