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5 Steps for Developing Real Empathy

How to avoid common pitfalls and be a more empathic listener.

Source: lisafx/depositphotos

Empathy does not mean you understand someone’s experience because you have been there, too. You can never know what someone is going through. Their experience of life is different from yours. What brought them to this moment in time is unique.

No matter how similar a person's dilemma or victory seems to be to your own, their experience will always be different from yours.

Real empathy is the ability to listen fully so you can come to understand why someone is thinking, feeling, and acting in a certain way from their perspective. You understand without judgment what triggered someone’s reaction or what prompted them to make a decision in the moment. When you seek to understand the person at this level, they feel heard and valued. They feel as if their emotions and opinions are validated even if you disagree.

When you listen with real empathy, people feel safe to be themselves with you. From this place, you can coach or mentor them to see new possibilities. They will be more open to learning with you.

'One of the most sincere forms of respect is actually listening to what another has to say.” — Bryant H. McGill, author of Simple Reminders

Practice these five steps to improve your empathy and your relationships:

  1. Don’t assume you understand. Summarize the words you hear and share the emotional shifts you notice. Let them respond with agreement or corrections.
  2. Stay present. They may say something that triggers a personal memory for you. Use curiosity to return to listening so you don’t get your story blurred with theirs.
  3. Manage your filters. We naturally hear what fits our assumptions and beliefs. We tune out what contradicts our views. Let yourself be surprised by how they define a situation. Look for new details and angles in their story you didn’t expect to hear.
  4. Don’t commiserate. When they talk about things they say are bad and wrong, ask what is behind their judgment. Don’t jump in and agree. As soon as you say their judgment is right, you have tuned out to listening for more.
  5. Remember the goal is to understand their perspective, not fix their problem. When you discover suggestions or have the urge to give advice, you are no longer attending to what they are saying. If you jump in early with advice in the conversation, they will shut down or become defensive because they no longer feel heard. If you give solutions later without asking if they want your ideas, you run the risk of them discarding what you offer without consideration. Empathize first. Reflect what you hear and see in their expressions so they feel heard. Then you can ask if they would like a few ideas or some coaching to find a solution.

Empathy is the most critical communication skill you can develop. You come to understand people at deeper levels. They feel safe because they don’t fear you will judge their words and actions. From this place of trust, people are more open to learning and growing with you even when it feels uncomfortable. Then you can be the leader or coach who truly makes a difference in their lives.

More from Marcia Reynolds Psy.D.
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