“You don’t really get it… How can you say you understand what I’m going through?” That’s sometimes the response when we try to comfort a friend in distress.
However there are things we can work on in order to become a better listener, and so be more of a support in someone’s hour of need.
June 10 is Empathy Day. Chartered psychologist Dr Audrey Tang, a mental health and wellness expert, explains this tricky subject and offers some suggestions about what we can all do.
Sympathy, empathy, what’s the difference?
Empathy is having a shared understanding of the feelings of another.
Perhaps you have had a similar experience and can reflect on how you have felt. Or you may be able to imagine how they feel – you put yourself in their shoes.
Sympathy is responding to feelings eg. sadness or sorrow for someone.
For example, you may feel sadness for your friend who has experienced a loss, but you may not understand or connect with how they are feeling in the moment.
Perhaps we could say Empathy is “I get it”, Sympathy is “I see it”.
Both empathy and sympathy are rooted in the Greek noun “pathos”, which refers to the sense of pity or compassion that can be evoked by a work of art or literature. Both are important to relationships as they deepen the bond between ourselves and others.
Sympathy is relatively natural to us if we are sensitive to the emotional signals of others, or simply listen to what they say, we can offer an appropriate response.
But empathy is a little trickier. How do we seek to understand an experience we do not recognise? And further, because interpretations are so personal, can we really ever truly understand how someone feels?
If or when we do, empathy is also the more powerful of the two, because it encourages us to help effect change.
So here are 6 ways we can all boost our empathy levels…
Cognitive empathy: Understanding of how others think
Through fiction we have access not only to someone’s behaviours, but to their innermost thoughts and motivations for acting as they did.
The storyline provides us with a safe space not only to reflect on our feelings about their actions, but even to discuss them with others. Doing this can broaden our thinking through hearing different opinions on the same text.
By immersing yourself in the culture of others – perhaps through home stays or exploring away from the tourist areas, not only do you widen your knowledge about different lifestyles, but in conversation with those you meet, you can learn about their perception of the world. This reminds us that our viewpoint is not the only one.
We may be able to apply that thought not just cross-culturally, but in our own lives when trying to understand a dispute from different points of view.
3) Listen actively
Rather than listening in order to reply (ie. thinking about what you are going to say), or trying to “top” what the other person is saying, engage with what you hear.
Ask questions about what they have said or paraphrase your understanding back to them. This enables you to check that you have understood their meaning. This is a great way to build rapport, because the person speaking feels heard.
Emotional empathy: Understanding of how others feel
4) “Friend’s sight” technique (Shukla, 2017)
When you are reflecting on a situation, ask yourself “how might my friend X feel?”
You can do this to boost cognitive empathy, too, by asking “How might my friend X see this situation? What might they do?”)
5) Name emotions
The broader our vocabulary for discussing emotions, the more nuances we are able to recognise.
This ability can be enhanced through using acting exercises. For example, “Speak this sentence out loud as if you were happy/ sad/ afraid/ ill/ surprised…”
By being aware of the different tones and inflexions other people can use, as well as facial expressions or body language, we become more sensitive to how they may be feeling.
This in turn may make us more confident in asking them if they are OK… or alternatively, knowing not to ask if we just don’t want to get involved.
6) Ask yourself “Is there another way I can interpret this?”
This can be helpful in preventing us from taking things too personally. It can also help in recognising when we might have inadvertently behaved in a way that could have been misconstrued by someone else.
By being aware that communication is only ever as effective as how it is received, we remain mindful that we might be projecting our own feelings onto a situation, rather than understanding it as it really is.
By boosting our empathy, we are better able to relate to others. This enables us to understand the needs they may have, as well as how our behaviours have an effect on them.
Through empathy, we can create a safe space for others to express themselves without judgment and without anyone “hijacking” how they feel.
Empathy does not mean we need to take responsibility for others’ emotions or interpretations. However it is the key building block of compassion, which drives us to positive action to improve their situation.