How to Empathize in 5 Steps
Empathy is a critical skill that allows us to truly understand others and connect with them on a deep level. When we empathize, we step outside of our own thoughts and give someone else an experience of truly being heard. It helps us build stronger relationships, resolve conflicts, and create a more compassionate society. With a few steps, you can empathize effectively and find connection with anyone - even people who you may think are vastly different from you. Here are some things you can do to up your empathy game:
The first step to empathizing is giving someone your undivided attention. You want to make sure that the person knows that you are truly with them. This means refraining from reading that notification on your phone that just buzzed in your pocket, or looking around at what is going on in the room. Practice eye contact, listen, and try to keep your thoughts at bay so that you can really be present with the person and what they are saying.
2. Listen actively
This could technically go along with presence, but we think it is important enough to make it a step on its own. Active listening means paying attention to what the person is saying, without interrupting or judging. Try to focus on their tone, body language, and the emotions they express. Don't assume that you know anything. Instead, remain curious and just listen.
3. Reflect what you heard
If you are present and listening actively, you should be able to reflect back to the person what you heard them say. You do not need to perform a word-by-word recitation. In fact, that would probably be quite awkward. Instead, hit the main points. What were the highlights of what they said? You can start off by saying something like, “So it sounds like ….” or maybe, “Hmmm. I’m hearing that you are really upset (or whatever other emotion they expressed) because…”
The point of this is two-fold. First, it is to make sure you are truly understanding what the other person is saying. Sometimes, after reflection, the person might come back with, “No, actually, that’s not really it.” and then they will elaborate on what they wanted you to understand. Sometimes the reflection is right on target, but it will then prompt them to share more of what they want you to understand. Both situations are great, because you are gaining more insight into their situation; they are giving you more opportunities to connect with them.
The second reason for reflection is to let the person know that you are with them. It proves that you are being present and listening actively.
4. Take feelings and needs guesses
This one is a little tricky because it can easily lead into non-empathy territory if you aren’t careful. Basically, after reflecting, just guess what they might be feeling or needing in the moment. Maybe they are feeling angry and they are needing consideration or respect. Maybe they are feeling embarrassed and they need understanding and acceptance. It could be anything, really. It might sound something like this, “It sounds like X (reflection) happened last week, and since then you have maybe been feeling Y (feelings guess). I’m guessing you are wanting some Z (needs guess).” The tricky part is leaving it at that. Reflecting and taking some guesses and that’s it - no giving advice or relating your own personal experience. Unless explicitly requested, don’t offer any of your own thoughts on their situation, because when empathizing, it’s not about you; it’s about the other person. Stay with them.
And just like the reflection piece, if you guess wrong, that’s okay! It will give the other person an opportunity to clarify and you an opportunity to understand them better.
5. Practice self-empathy
Empathy begins with ourselves. To empathize effectively, we need to be in touch with our own needs and feelings. Practice self-empathy by acknowledging your own needs and finding healthy ways to process feelings. When we understand ourselves, we can better understand others.
Empathy is a powerful tool that allows us to connect with others on a deep level. By staying present, actively listening, reflecting, taking some feelings and needs guesses, and practicing self-empathy, you can develop this critical skill. Empathy helps us build stronger relationships, understand others better, and create a more compassionate world. If you'd like some deeper guidance in this department, check out our Intro to Nonviolent Communication Course. In this course, you'll learn more about empathy as well as other useful skills to create connection with others.