I had a painful, but poignant phone conversation earlier this week with my wife Michelle. She shared some challenges with me in a vulnerable and passionate way. As I started to give her some of my “helpful advice” (as I often do – being a man, as well as an author, speaker, and coach, I’m fairly well trained at giving advice), she stopped me and said, “Can’t you just give me empathy for me? That’s what I really need right now. Once I feel your empathy, I can hear your feedback.”
Her comment stopped me in my tracks. I got defensive and began to justify myself – arguing that I did, indeed, have a lot of empathy and that she should be more open to my feedback. Needless to say, my defensiveness (and subsequent arrogance and self righteousness) didn’t help things, and the conversation got worse before it got better, which it eventually did.
Michelle’s feedback, however, registered with me at a very deep level. Although I “understand” the importance of empathy, teach it to others through my work, and have the capacity to experience and express a great deal of empathy with people around me, it’s sometimes difficult for me to have empathy for the people closest to me, including myself, especially recently. Maybe you can relate?
Empathy can be tricky, particularly when we have an emotional connection (or attachment) to the people or situation involved (which we almost always do). It’s also challenging to feel empathy when we feel threatened, stressed, or emotionally triggered (all of which we can experience a lot, especially with those who mean the most to us). And, empathy is sometimes misunderstood.
Empathy is NOT:
Simply put, empathy is getting into another person’s world and connecting with them both emotionally and compassionately. We don’t have to agree with them or fully understand them to be able to empathize. We don’t even need to be able to relate to what they are experiencing specifically (although that can help). We just need to be present, connect with them where they are, and acknowledge what they’re experiencing. Empathy for ourselves, while different contextually, actually functions the exact same way, simply turned inward.
The problem is that we often allow our egos, opinions, and judgments to get in the way of our ability to experience and express empathy. If I agree with someone completely, can totally relate to them, and see things exactly as they do, it’s quite easy for me to empathize with them.
However, if I don’t agree, can’t relate, have a very different take on the situation or actually think how they’re reacting to things is potentially harmful for them and others, it’s often very hard for me to be empathetic towards them and I also worry that my expression of empathy could come across as agreement or endorsement.
While it can be challenging, the power of empathy is essential to the health and success of our relationships and lives. It is a key element to our own emotional intelligence and well being. With the people closest to us, including ourselves, and the issues that mean the most to us, empathy is even more critical, but often more difficult for us to experience and express.
Here are a few things to remember and practice to enhance your capacity for empathy:
1) Ask yourself where empathy is missing. Take inventory of your life and relationships and notice where empathy may be wanted, needed, or simply missing. As you identify situations, relationships, and personal matters that could use an increased amount of empathy, make a commitment to yourself to bring less judgment and more compassion to them.
2) Reach out to people in your life. As you identify specific situations and relationships where you could bring more empathy, reach out to the people involved and let them know. There may be an apology to give, an acknowledgement to make, or simply an admission that you want to bring more empathy and compassion (and less judgment, advice, self righteousness, etc) to your relationship. Start working to do that with the most important people in your life.
3) Ask how people are feeling and really listen to what they say. One of the best ways we can express empathy towards others is through our curiosity and listening. When people feel heard, seen, and emotionally understood, they often relax, open up, and feel supported. Asking people how they truly feel, what’s really going on in their world, AND listening to how they respond (without judgment) are some of the best things we can do to express our empathy for the people around us.
All of these things also hold true with regard to having empathy and compassion for ourselves, which is essential in this process. Like most things in life, we can’t give away what we don’t already have ourselves. Self empathy is the foundation.
Everyone on the planet, including us, is almost always doing the very best they can in each moment. We’re all just dealing with the joy, pain, growth, challenge, and more of being human. Remembering this allows us to cut ourselves and others some loving slack, and engage in life, in our relationships, and with ourselves with a deep sense of respect, reverence, and, ultimately, empathy.