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The Amazing Power of Empathy

Empathy is the capacity to understand and respond to the unique experience of another. In my 30 years of clinical experience, I have learned that empathy is unquestionably the most important capacity for a successful personal and professional life. It facilitates all day-to-day encounters. Empathy is also essential to creating real intimacy and satisfying long term relationships.

Sympathy and empathy are often confused. Sympathy is an involuntary feeling-the passive experience of attempting to console in a general sense.

Empathy is an active process in which you try to learn all you can about another person rather than having only a superficial awareness.

We all have an innate capacity for empathy. When we are not treated with empathy, the capacity atrophies, like a muscle that is not used. When we are treated with empathy, our unique personality honored, we learn to be empathic; the muscle increases in mass and strength.

Here are some guidelines to develop empathy:

Ask open ended questions.

Closed-ended questions limit or manipulate the other person’s answer, automatically introducing a power play. The respondent can choose submissive agreement, combative reaction or sullen refusal to play along.

For example, the closed-ended solution: “Do you think my solution is unreasonable?’ might be answered with “I guess not” or “Yes, as usual” or even stony silence. Whatever the reply, the interaction creates a winner and a loser. There can be no common ground or genuine exchange of information.

The open-ended question, in contrast, “How do you see a solution shaping up?” conveys respect for another’s opinions. It initiates a dialogue that can lead to real communication and understanding.

Slow down.

Easing the pace allows volatile emotions to be tempered with thoughtful reflection. We can then grasp the whole picture, not just a narrow, unconstructive focus.

Avoid snap judgments.

It is natural to categorize behaviors based on our own past experiences. But people constantly change.

Don’t jump to conclusions about anyone’s current mental or emotional state, no matter who you have encountered with similar features or mannerisms.

Obstacles to Empathy

Accusations such as “You always react that way” or “I can read you like a book.” Such statements are a turnoff to others and can block you from discovering the truth.

Pay attention to your body. Our nervous systems talk to each other; some researchers define empathy as a nervous system state which tends to stimulate that of another person. When a mother plays with an infant, their hearts beat in time. When one person raises his voice, the other’s heartbeat speeds up.

Consider past experiences and the current circumstance. Strong emotions often emanate from previous, still-unresolved conflicts. Difficult conditions can also affect behavior. Ask yourself: Am I reacting only to the receptionist’s unfriendly manner or to her strong resemblance to a cold, critical figure from the past.

Is the receptionist curt because she dislikes you or because her demanding boss always overbooks?

Let the story unfold. Of all the skills involved in empathy, listening requires the most concentration. It also rewards you with more productive conversations and greater knowledge. Think how much more open and cooperative you feel when you are truly heard rather than cut off or thoughtlessly categorized.

Strategies for better listening

Become all ears. Letting your mind wander, rehearsing your own words or mentally arguing deafens you to what is being said.

Remain unbiased. We all have stereotypes that interfere with our judgment. The most important “truth” is what you hear in the current moment.

Physical health.

Remember moments of empathic connection reduce tension, lesson release of stress hormones, reduce blood pressure and most importantly widen the lens we see the world with. We ultimately realize we are all more alike than we are different.

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