I am convinced that when it comes to social skills, there is one thing that will make people like you and think of you as an amazing person more than anything.
It’s not how you look.
It’s not how you smile.
It’s not what type of joke you make.
It has to do with connection – humans are wired for it. The one everyone desires more than anything, including you, is to be understood.
Someone needs to understand your hard work and the feelings of possible failure in starting your own business. Someone needs to understand how nervous you feel going on that date. Has someone ever tried to understand how it felt when you had a rough time as a kid?
How do you understand someone else?
What Is Empathy?
Empathy is defined as one’s ability to share and understand the feelings of someone else. It is an ESSENTIAL component of relating and connecting to others.
Seems simple enough.
But, be careful to not confuse empathy with sympathy.
I posted a video to the LWOT Facebook and Google+ pages and will re-post it below. In short, sympathy is when someone tells you about something, a problem, or an event and you say, “Aww I understand” like a platitude and that’s it.
That’s a fairly surface level gesture.
Empathy on the other hand, involves drawing on a similar event the person is describing, going back to how you felt, and then REALLY feeling what the person was going through. So if the person is happy, you understand the happiness from your own experience. If the person is sad, you understand how they could feel from your own past experiences of sadness too.
Of course, many times we don’t want to feel bad or sad feelings, so we’d rather sympathize and stay on the periphery. Or, maybe the person is happy but we feel jealousy towards them, so us talking to them is just a means to move on from the conversation.
Eventhough I am naturally an empathetic person, I have found that improving my skills of empathy has led to MANY positives:
- I found that I have had far more enjoyable conversations, because when I was able to relate on an emotional level, things passed the “how’s the weather?” type questions.
- When people needed support, I was able to draw on how I felt and then think about what I did, versus giving advice from a purely logical perspective. E.g. telling someone just to do something when they are scared isn’t very helpful.
- Because I became more in touch with my emotions, I was far better able to relate with women and my relationships with them improved – Gender difference 101 is that men are primarily logically-oriented, and women emotional. Usually, issues occur if either partner is not aware of this in how they converse.
- Becoming more empathetic goes hand in hand with getting more in touch with your emotions. As my skills improved with either, everything FELT better. Yes it’s true, I sometimes felt bad feelings when empathizing as well, but I felt more ALIVE because I felt a range of happiness, to sadness, to anger, and frustration. I used to be quite a robot, operating usually on a dull, numbing pain or feeling completely apathetic. But now, I could feel a wide range… The colour palette grew.
- Awareness of my emotions from empathetic practice led to me being KINDER to myself when I felt scared or sad, because the adult in me could talk to the kid and be down there with him in the hole when he felt shitty.
So we’ve established that becoming more empathetic often goes hand in hand with becoming more in touch with your emotions. This is why so many people are not the best at empathizing. It’s far easier not to deal with messy emotions other people might be going through. Or, if you are usually a positive person, to not let people bring you down.
However, true connection requires empathy. No person will feel you care about them at a deeper level unless you allow yourself to enter the vast sea of emotions out there. You don’t resist and you let them carry you where they may.
This is quite difficult when you’ve pushed emotions down your entire life, or have a tendency to avoid negative emotions.
I remember the first time I REALLY felt a huge amount of empathy was with a woman I was dating. She had told me about a particularly traumatic experience she had been through as a child, and because we were so well connected and I was open to her, I literally felt sick… I was nauseous and the room was spinning. I wondered, “What would I feel like in that situation if it was me?” I felt frustrated, angry, and alone.
Then I felt even more angry that someone I deeply cared for went through something so bad.
It led to extremely powerful sex and we became much closer.
How The F*** Do I Do Empathy?
A friend of mine was having some trouble with someone he was dating. After talking to the woman herself, it seemed that all she wanted was some more emotional commitment and connection from my friend. And when I told him this, he said:
“How the hell do I emotionally connect with her?”
“Uhh.. by listening and being empathetic?”
“What does that mean? How do you be empathetic?”
I had never thought about breaking it down in to a step-by-step process. But I did it for him and it seemed to REALLY clear things up in his mind.
So here it is for you to use. I will assume the situation is when someone is in some trouble or a negative place:
The Step-By-Step Guide To Empathy And Being Empathetic
1. Someone asks for your support, either verbally or you can tell they are in a down state.
2. Either tell them, “What’s wrong? I’m here for you” and FUCKING MEAN it. Or, let them start talking.
3. Listen. Actively listen. Don’t be on your phone, don’t go on Facebook, don’t cool food. Give them 100% of your attention.
4. Decide if this is a situation that requires your attention. If you think this is not necessary or that the person is using you (see the discussion of venting below), tell them politely, but firmly to stop. Or, have them talk to someone else.
5. If you believe this is something worth while to listen to, let them keep going. Even if YOU think what they are discussing is silly or you have solved “the problem”, you have to put your ego aside to support the other person. Leave your ego at the door and give them your attention.
6. What emotions underlie the details? Is the other person sad, frustrated, angry,…?
7. Connect whatever emotion that underlies the details to something you faced. This is the part that trips most people up:
For example if someone is talking about being scared on stage singing and that they might fail, you may never have had that experience… how the hell can you feel what they do?
BUT, you might have been scared and worried about failing when doing a speech. Or, when going on a first date. Or, when going for your driving test.
The situations can be quite different, but the emotions underlining each event are the same.
With time you won’t need to literally think about the events to feel the emotions and will be able to tap in to the emotions readily, but this thinking helps at the start.
8. Put yourself in their shoes now. Now that you have the emotion can you imagine what would happen if you were in that situation? Speak from that perspective.
9. The most important phrase to say is “I understand”. Once you feel the emotion and say this, the person on the receiving end will know if you truly are empathizing or sympathizing… It will come through your eyes and words.
10. Do not offer advice unless the person specifically asks for it. You are not a problem solver, you are a listener.
These are the basic steps, and with practice, you will get better and better at knowing what to say further. Every emotional situation is different so I cannot give you guidance past a basic framework. You’ll have to go in to those mucky emotions yourself! Wisdom is gained through experience.
The Problems With Venting
I have large issues with unwarranted venting, especially for little items.
Venting is an emotional release – something builds up inside you and, like a steam valve, you let things out verbally. Yes, this can be good but it can also be burning up a person’s boundaries.
You must tell someone to stop if you truly believe it is an unimportant matter, or it is too much for you to handle. Proceeding otherwise is unfair to them (they aren’t being heard) and to you (your boundaries are being walked all over).
Just because someone wants your attention and energy and for you to be empathetic, it doesn’t mean you have to be.
There is also an associated danger with letting people vent uncontrollably: they learn you are their emotional punching bag to just keep talking to. Moreover, do YOU ever get to let your feelings out or is it always them – is it a two-way street?
But when two people truly want the best for each other, empathy creates connection and is an important tool and skill to develop. Just take it one step at a time, be prepared to listen, and don’t let it get out of hand (venting).
Even in simple conversations, you can empathize and grow a much deeper connection quite quickly, such as when someone describes what they do in school, travelling, and so on.
Empathy allows you feel compassion and connection to others, realizing everyone struggles, has ups and downs, and wants to be cared about.
When someone feels like you understand them, they will treasure your input and relationship. You will be seen as a source of strength.