To truly master the art of developing a positive bond with other people, empathy is a very important life skill. It is the emotional process that builds a connection between people. It is a state of perceiving and relating to another person’s feelings and needs without blaming them, giving them advice or trying to fix their situation which, on occasions, can be very tempting to do. The danger of directly trying to help is that you can superimpose your own solution on to the other person, which may not always work for them!
To empathise and understand another individual is an intuitive act in which you give complete attention to someone else’s experience and push aside your own issues. To be truly empathetic is about helping another person feel secure enough to open up and share their experience. In order to do this, they will need to trust you. By being empathetic and understanding, you will help the other person feel that they are not entirely isolated in their predicament and you can provide them with a safe haven to recover and grow stronger, knowing they have a supporter.
Just to clarify, empathy is different from sympathy. When someone is sympathetic, whilst it also implies support, it is a feeling that is more fuelled by pity and you will usually maintain an emotional distance from the other person’s feelings. An empathetic and understanding approach is more about truly sensing or imagining the depth of another person’s feelings. It implies feeling with a person, rather than feeling sorry for them.
Empathy is a translation of the German term Einfühlung, meaning ‘to feel as one with’. It implies sharing the load, or ‘walking a mile in someone else’s shoes’ in order to appropriately understand the other person’s perspective. This can take time and patience.
Having a rich capacity for empathy and understanding is a wonderful quality if it is used in the right way. Once you understand someone you can use that understanding to help them to heal and help themselves. If you reject the skill of empathy, you reject the ability to really understand your fellow humans as well as you could.
‘If there is any one secret of success, it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from his angle as well as your own.’
Steps to success
- Get in touch with your own feelings
- Understand the range of emotions people can experience
- Be genuinely interested in what others feel
- Be willing to put yourself in the others person’s shoes
- Be open minded to all perspectives
- Extend the hand of human kindness.
How to Develop Empathy
To really increase your ability to empathise it is important that you start with yourself. Pay close attention to your emotional state and what makes you feel positive and negative. This is a good basis from which to understand that people have different emotional responses to just about everything.
Seven Key Steps to Developing Empathy:
1. Give the person you are talking to your undivided attention.
2. Be objective and avoid preconceived judgements.
3. Observe and listen to the emotion behind the other person’s words.
4. Avoid interrupting even though you may want to.
5. Be careful not to jump to an early conclusion.
6. Communicate that you understand and want to be supportive.
7. Ask questions where relevant to help the other person gain some clarity.
We are fortunate in the developing world that we have more opportunity to mix cross-culturally and learn more about people from a wide range of backgrounds. We can get to know people from all ages, ethnicities, sexual orientations, socio-economic backgrounds and levels of physical ability. The more people you get to know, the more experiences you will have to draw on and this can really help you to increase your ability to empathise.
Fostering empathy for those around you is a good thing to do and looking for the similarities between yourself and others is an interesting and sometimes challenging exercise. When you simply focus on the differences between yourself and other people, it is much more difficult to understand others.
It is also useful to practice taking on another’s perspective. On occasions you may feel that your perspective is the only viewpoint available; however, this is simply not true. Educate and condition your mind to be more open to the perspectives of others and immerse yourself in a different viewpoint. Not only will this improve your ability to be more empathetic it will help you to grow as a person.
To understand a situation fully, you need to take different perspectives, just as if you were looking at an object from angles to see its breadth, height and depth. One point of view only gives a single dimension, a single perspective, true from one angle but an incomplete picture of the object as a whole. There is no ‘right’ perspective in any situation. You build understanding from many perspectives. All are partially true and all are limited.
Changing your perspective is a great technique to use when trying to empathise with others. It encourages you to see a situation from three different perspectives: yours, the other person’s and that of a neutral third party.
This is your own reality, your own view of the situation. Put yourself right into the situation and answer the following questions from your perspective only:
1. How are you behaving? (What does this mean?)
2. How are you feeling? (What else are you feeling? What do you really feel?)
3. What do you believe about the situation? (What is really going on?)
4. What is important to you?
5. What is there for you to learn?
6. How is your perception of this situation already changing?
Now make a creative leap in your imagination to understand the world from another person’s perspective – try to think in the way they think. The second position is the basis of empathy and gives us the ability to appreciate other people’s feelings. Answer the questions listed above from the other person’s perspective.
This is a step outside your own viewpoint and that of the other person, towards a detached perspective. From there you can see the relationship between the two viewpoints. You will need to forget for a moment that it is your outcome and that you want it, and look at it in a more detached way. Ask yourself:
1. How are they each behaving? (What does this mean?)
2. How are they each feeling?
3. What do you believe about the situation? What beliefs do they each appear to be using?
4. What is important to each of them?
5. What is there for you to learn? What is there for them to learn?
6. How is your perception of this situation already changing? What is the key to it all? How can this be easily resolved?
Come back into yourself bringing your new learning and perceptions with you and consider what would have to happen for the situation to be easily resolved. Think about the future and how you are now behaving.
The term ‘emotional intelligence’ was first used in the world of psychology in 1966, but its earliest roots can be traced to Charles Darwin’s work on the importance of emotional expression for survival. Emotional intelligence is essentially the ability to identify, understand and control your emotions and recognise how they can affect others around you. It also involves your perception of others and understanding how they feel.
The following framework describes five key elements of emotional intelligence:
Highly emotionally intelligent people are very self-aware. They are individuals who understand their emotions and because of this, they don’t let their feelings overwhelm them. They also have higher levels of self-confidence because they trust their intuition and don’t let their emotions get out of control. They are willing to take a good hard look in the metaphorical mirror so that they can fully understand their strengths and weaknesses and seek to make self-improvement.
This is the ability to control emotions and impulses and, for highly emotional people, this can be challenging. People who self-regulate typically don’t allow themselves to become too angry or too jealous and they don’t make impulsive, careless decisions. Characteristics of self-regulation are thinking things through without being too rash, thoughtfulness, being comfortable with change and demonstrating the ability to be assertive.
People with a high degree of emotional intelligence are also usually self-motivated and have a zest for life. They are willing to defer immediate results for long-term success and will put the necessary investment into everything they do.
They are generally highly productive, enjoy challenges and are very effective and successful in whatever they turn their hand to.
Empathy is about having some understanding of and identification with how another person is feeling. The metaphor of ‘being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes’ is often used to describe this. People with empathy are good at recognising the feelings of others and as a result, empathetic people are usually excellent at managing relationships, listening and relating to others. Empathetic people avoid stereotyping and judging too quickly and they live their lives in a very open and honest way.
Another sign of high emotional intelligence is the ability to interact comfortably with others. People with strong social skills are typically team players. Rather than focus on their own success first, they help others to develop and grow. Emotionally intelligent people are good at managing disputes, are excellent communicators and very successful at building and maintaining positive relationships. The key elements of emotional intelligence are all based on very positive behaviours. Those traits will also help you to be more empathetic. There are many benefits to cultivating emotional intelligence and it is something that can help you in so many different areas of your life.