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How To Be Empathetic in Seven Steps

How to be empathetic is one of the most important aspects of communications, as well as to specialty areas such as Design Thinking. (And yes of course, being empathetic is important in life as well, but that’s another post …)

Think about it.

How can you persuade, influence or motivate without recognising how they feel and why?

Would you be able to develop good ideas without understanding the audience’s needs or problems that you’re design a solution?

Can you win an important negotiation if you can’t hear what the other party is trying to tell you?

Most sane people would agree with me that empathy is vital in business as much as our personal lives, but at the same time, most people probably have no idea HOW to be empathetic.

Sure, we may sort-of know, but there’s a truth to the adage: You have to know what you know, otherwise you can’t improve.

In these challenging times, perhaps it’s time for a quick review.

First, a Definition

Empathy is the ability to identify and accept the feelings and perspectives of another, and to respond appropriately.

The ability to identify … In other words, it’s important to realise which emotion it is. Being annoyed and being frustrated are two different emotions. To be empathetic means helping the other person define the emotion. You can’t tell someone how they feel; that’s never your job. An empathetic person helps by listening and paraphrasing what the other person says or feels.

Accept the feelings and perspectives … In other words, do not judge the other person about what they feel. In Design Thinking, we talk about “no JABs.”  No Judgement. No assumptions. No biases. JABs are negative, and never constructive.

Respond appropriately … In other words, behave in a way that puts the focus on them and their situation. Stay in the background. Or, as Nana Eklund used to say:

You are the least important person in any conversation.

Empathy is Not Sympathy

Also, empathy is not the same as sympathy. They are confusingly similar.

Sympathy is when you feel compassion, sorry or pity for the other party. You share the other party’s emotion.

Empathy is when you fully understand how another feels, like how an actor may inhibit a character. With empathy, you always keep your objectivity.

How to Be Empathetic in Seven Steps

  1. Squash your opinion
  2. Give the other person your undivided attention
  3. Validate their feelings
  4. Encourage them to examine themselves
  5. Listen and paraphrase what they said without bias
  6. Ask: What do you think you should do?
  7. Ask: What’s your Plan B?

Here are the seven points in more detail.

1.  Squash your opinion.

Keep your opinions and recommendations to yourself. Stay in the background. As an example, no one looking for empathy wants to hear the other party say: “Your day was bad? Mine was worse.” To ruin a good RuPaul quote: Empathy is not a competition sport.

2.  Give the other person your undivided attention.

Otherwise known as being present, it means you are there, in the moment, giving them your complete consideration. Being present means turning to them when they’re talking to you. Put down your phone. Look at them directly. Multi-tasking is never being present. If you are doing anything but not listening 100% to them, you are not being empathetic. I’ll guarantee you they can instantly tell by looking at you that you aren’t really interested.

3.  Validate their feelings.

Whatever they think or feel, tell them they’re right. Sometimes it’s …

  • Point-blank. “You’re absolutely right, your day sucked.”
  • Reassuring. “You have every right to be upset about what your boss said.”
  • Simple. “I see” or “Go on.”

Every response from you is physical: you should nod, make direct eye contact.

Whether they know it or not, people who need empathy are wanting to articulate how they feel or define their concerns aloud. In anxiety or stress, problems tend to feel more manageable when they can get outside of one’s head. If nothing else, it helps to prove to themselves they aren’t wrong or crazy. The most important aspect is to help them get it out, primarily by listening with encouragement, which begins to lead toward the next step.

Remember, validation does not mean you agree or you approve of their decisions. Validation simply means you support them, and you support their decision, even if you think or act differently.

I’ve kept this quote for a long time, and it works beautifully here. (If someone knows who said it, please let me know!)

Objectivity is seeing all the issues and feelings and contributing without bias.

Objectivity is the absence of bias – not the absence of empathy.

4.  Encourage them to examine themselves.

Venting is easy. But it’s far more important to reflect on what happened, what they’ve said in response, or how they feel, both now and then. Emotions feel right inside their heads. But as they talk, they’ll feel and sound different than what they imagined. This point leads to the next …

5.  Listen and paraphrase back what you hear.

This is important to they hear back their own thoughts. I was listening to a colleague awhile back, and she said: “I wish a grand piano would fall of them when they walked out of the building.” I responded with something like: “I can hear you’re really frustrated so you’re hoping something horrible happens to them.” Of course, she immediately said, “Well no but …” And she went on to talk more specifically and constructively about what she felt and wanted. But again, you listen without judgement.

And, if it’s not apparent, paraphrasing is always better than simply repeating what they said. It shows you thought about what they said but, when necessary, add “But correct me if I’m wrong.”

Also, they may stop talking.

At some point, they may want to retreat for a while to reflect in private. That doesn’t mean you’re finished. You might add something like: “Do you want me to stick around, or do you want some time alone?” Or, “Can I do anything that won’t make you feel any worse?” Or simply, “When you’re ready, I hope you’ll tell me what I can do to help more.”

Finally, one thing you never do:  Change the subject.

6.  Ask “What do you think you should do?”

Notice the emphasis is on the, not you. They need to decide what the best next step is.

I suggest you also add, again when appropriate, “Why do you think that’s the best step?” You might also encourage them to come up with alternatives, because it’s easier to decide which is the best choice when you have options. Another good question here is:  “Is that the outcome you want?”

7.  What’s your PLAN B?

The final step, which may have been covered in the previous one, is to ensure they have a Plan B. Everything that can go wrong, will. So, plan for the worst, don’t plan for the best. People also feel more confident and comfortable when they have options.

But Shouldn’t I Tell Them What To Do?

Listen, I can imagine sitting at a pub, listening to Him ranting about This or Her raving about That. It’s natural when you’re with friends to want to contribute. You’re sharing the other party’s emotion, but that’s sympathy not empathy.

But, before you offer your opinion or idea, consider this. You tell the other party what to do. They do it but it explodes in their face. Who are their going to blame? What will you do when they blame you?

When they either ask you for your opinion, or you decide to offer an opinion, try something like this instead: “I understand you want my opinion, but I also don’t want to suggest something that might backfire and it ruins our relationship. Let’s focus on what you want to do, and I’ll play Good Cop, Bad Cop so we can find the best answer for you.”

This is such an important topic, and all of us have experienced both good and bad empathy. What are some of the ways how you’ve tried to be empathic? Please add your thoughts or comments below.

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How to Be Empathic

How To Be Empathetic in Seven Steps