Empathy is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and truly identify with what they are feeling, experiencing or where they’re coming from. It’s one of the most critical of soft skills, and is closely associated with effective leadership. Why? Because leadership is about influence, and influence is authentically gained through positive relationships.
Empathy is the powerful language that creates connections and understanding between people, even when differences in opinion or perspectives exist. This is increasingly important as teams are becoming more diverse and companies more global.
Being attuned to empathy is the first step, but it’s not enough. You have to be able to communicate your empathy to another person, or it doesn’t ultimately benefit the relationship. It turns out this isn’t always the easiest thing to do, especially for those of us who struggle with emotional expression.
Here is a seven-step process for expressing empathy:
Listen: Before you can feel or show empathy, you have to actively listen to the other person. If you’re not listening in a focused way, you won’t have collected the valuable information (both verbal and non-verbal) that enables you to tap into empathy. To do this, you must silence your inner monologue, and continue to put your focus back on the other person.
Resist the Urge to Fix or Suggest: Many times, people share frustrations or problems. And, likely, the way you’re accustomed to responding is to go straight into providing the other person a solution, idea or suggestion. This comes from a good place – you want to be helpful and useful as a friend or colleague, and you want the other person to be out of the woods. But, this is not typically what the other person needs. Unless someone is specifically asking for advice or solutions, resist the urge to fix. Instead, focus on communicating empathy.
Acknowledge That You Heard: This is probably the most impactful of the steps, and also the simplest. However, it might be the one that feels the most awkward or unfamiliar to implement, at least at first. It’s also the one that is skipped over the most. Here’s how it might sound (adapted to your authentic voice):
• “Yeah, I hear what you’re saying.”
• “I totally get it.”
• “I see where you’re coming from.”
• “I see what you mean.”
Ask Clarifying Questions: At this point, you can ask a few simple open-ended questions to clarify anything you didn’t quite grasp. These could include:
• “What did you mean by….?”
• “What’s most important for you about this?
• “So how are you feeling about this?”
Articulate What You Heard: Next, you have an opportunity to reflect back what you’re heard, in your own words. This not only helps to ensure you’ve heard things correctly, but it also helps the other person realize what they’ve said. Sometimes, this can be of great value for someone, especially if they’re thinking out loud and haven’t fully processed what’s going on in their life. Hearing someone else summarize his or her situation can be a real gift. Here’s how you might start these sorts of statements:
• “So what I hear you saying is….”
• “So, if I have this right, what you’re experiencing is that…”
Communicate Inferred Impact: This step communicates an even deeper sense of empathy. You’re not only hearing and understanding what’s said, but you’re putting yourself in the other person’s shoes and playing out the potential cause and effect impact of their situation. These statements can start with the following:
• “I see how what you described would mean that…(this other thing is affected)”
• “Because of what you’re experiencing, it probably means that…(it’s harder or easier for you to also do X)”
Check-In and Validate: At this point (and, actually, throughout the conversation) it’s helpful to check-in with the other person to ensure you fully understand what they’ve said. Even though you’re making summary and inference statements based on what you heard, you have to be unattached to whether you’ve successfully diagnosed their situation. Again, the point isn’t to diagnose or fix. The point is to truly understand what they’re going through. So, if you’ve summarized or inferred incorrectly, that’s ok. It gives the other person the opportunity to correct or modify what you’ve said. Checking in with them will help provide the windows for them to respond to what you’ve communicated. These check-ins could sound like:
• “Did I get that right?”
• “Correct me if I’m wrong…”
• “What did I miss?”