Empathy: The Essential Component for a Healthy Relationship

Empathy, in its simplest form, is about being able to understand and identify with the feelings of another person. Conflicted exchanges will decrease when empathy is the foundation of your conversations. Without it, they can go in circles.

Empathy blockers

Who taught us how to listen? For many of us, listening might not have been included in our upbringings. However, if we want to be more empathetic towards others, practicing the art of listening is an essential first step.

Are you an empathetic person? I thought I was until I realized I had no idea what empathy actually was. To make it simple, NVC showed me what empathy was not and it was a huge “Aha” moment for me. In learning what it wasn’t, I was able to clearly identify what blocked my ability to listen and the empathy that had been lacking. The art of listening finally made sense to me.

Below are some examples of what listening is not and I hope you have your own “Aha” moment reading them.

Your wife, your husband, your friend or anyone says the following to you:

“I had the worst day. I got blamed for something I didn’t do at work, lunch was awful and traffic was a nightmare.”

Haven’t we all heard someone describe their day like this? When they do, what do you say?

Here are a few examples of the kind of empathy blocking responses that are commonly given:

a) One-upping: You had a hard day? I know how you feel, mine was pretty bad too. The attention has now been put on me and my experience. I thought I was being empathetic, but perhaps not.

b) Advising/Fixing: Maybe you should pack your lunch. You’ll save money. Don’t you think the bus would be better than driving? Did this person ask for my advice? Does it sound as though I am judging them and letting them know they could make better choices? Where’s the empathy?

c) Analyzing/Interrogating: You’ve had a number of days like this. This seems like a pattern of yours. Here I am analyzing and throwing in a bit of blame and shame, making it clear that I’m the one who knows what they should be doing with their life. Though we mean well, responses like this can be irritating.

d) Educating: You know, there is a great book about succeeding at work, you should get it. This response comes across as unrequested advice and holds little room for connection.

e) Discounting: You should be grateful you have a job. This can come off as belittling, a subtle form of judgment.

f) Consoling: Well, none of that was your fault. I’m sure you tried your best. Did this person ask for pity? This can seem patronizing.

g) Storytelling: Oh, this reminds me of a really bad day I had last week. Once again, it’s all about me.

h) Data Gathering: When did you actually leave work? Did you take the highway or side streets? Now I’m digging for facts, as opposed to just listening.

Empathy calls upon us to quiet our mind and listen to others without thinking of what to say in response. It is a crucial component to the health of any relationship.

Empathy responses

As I’ve come to understand empathy, listening has become a way of being fully present. My mind goes quiet when I’m listening to another person. Also I’ve come to respond in a very soft tone that I believe meets the other person’s need for presence. Here is a short list of empathetic responses I often give:

  • “I hear you” said softly. If it’s appropriate I might add “Tell me more” or “Is there more to that?”
  • “Wow” This response is what has most resonated with me and again, I say it quite softly. Sometimes when the conversation is going on for some time, I’ll interject it gently so it does not interrupt. “Wow” works for me, give it a try.
  • “Yikes” Again, depending on the situation, this response can serve the same as “Wow.” I generally use “Yikes” with people I’m more familiar with.

“I hear you,” “tell me more,” “wow,” “yikes;” these have become part of my repertoire when responding to others and as a result, communication has become much easier.

This is one approach to listening that has created a better understanding of empathy for not only my students and clients, but also those in my personal life.

How can I put this into practice?

More often than not, in a conversation, we stop listening to someone after they have said just a few words because we are eagerly preparing or planning our own response. What would it be like to listen to someone without thinking what to say in response? For many of us, we have a deep need to be heard, and yet for as long as we can remember we have rarely had the experience of someone truly listening to us. The next time you have a conversation with someone, especially with someone you care about, notice if your responses involve any of the empathy blockers listed above.

Being aware of this will enable you to communicate with more empathy. Very soon you will begin to self-correct, just like any other skill that requires discipline and development. Committing to a practice of empathy with others achieves the process of effective communication.

One way to see if you are being empathetic is to check in with the other person to see how they are feeling and what they need. This way of relating takes some practice since we have been conditioned to think what our best response will be. Often we don’t hear much of what others are saying. How can we if we’re thinking of what to say in response? This is where empathy comes in and suspends our urge to prepare a desired answer.

Empathy is power

Once we acknowledge empathy blockers as a hindrance to closer contact, we begin to create a more fulfilling and connected way of being with others. Here’s a little secret: if you want to end a debate that seems as though it’s turning into an argument all you have to do is gently say “I hear you” or “Wow,” then silence. Now’s there’s no argument, at least not on your part, you’ve stepped back and practiced being empathetic. Giving empathy and choosing not to argue is not a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of power.

-Michael