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7 Tips to be Empathetic

Back view of two friends walking through a field

(Image: Joseph Pearson)

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What is empathy? It is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person. The ability to put yourself in other’s shoes, and try to relate and understand where they are coming from, even if the situation is not familiar to you.

Earlier today I was sharing a personal problem with a good friend from London. Not only did he respond right away, which I didn’t expect because it was late at night London time, but he gave very thoughtful remarks. There were several things he did/said that made me feel better:

  • He asked questions to understand my situation further.
  • He didn’t judge but understood things from my perspective.
  • He considered things from various angles.
  • He gave helpful suggestions on what could work.
  • He constantly related to my feelings, which were unhappiness, hurt, and frustration, rather than dismiss them or brush them away.

I later realized that he had woken up in the middle of the night, but chose to respond and engage in one hour-long conversation with me, rather than going back to sleep. I later texted him, “Thanks X. I really appreciate having you as a friend. 🙂

How to Have Empathy

It goes without saying that empathy is important. I have shared deeply personal problems with friends before but got replies that made me feel worse. I have also made very casual remarks that good friends picked up, which later turned into heartfelt conversations, because it created the opening for me to share.

When you have empathy for others, you help them feel better about themselves. You help others relieve their problems. You also strengthen your relationship with the person, because empathy is like a conduit that lets thoughts and emotions flow.

So how can you have empathy?

  1. Acknowledge the person’s feelings. One of the biggest problems I find in communication is that many people often don’t acknowledge the other person’s feelings. Acknowledge means to recognize the importance of something. So for example, someone says “I feel so frustrated with X.” Acknowledging this feeling means saying, “Why are you frustrated?” or “I’m sorry to hear that. What happened?”

    On the other hand, when you switch to a different topic altogether, or brush off or dismiss that emotion (e.g., “Relax,” “What’s the big deal?” or saying something irrelevant), you are not acknowledging — and respecting — their feelings. Think about emotions as the connecting point in a conversation. How you respond to an emotion is central to whether the person shares or becomes closed off. When someone expresses an emotion, like “I’m sad,” “I’m angry,” or “I’m frustrated,” acknowledge the emotion. For example: “I’m so sorry that you are feeling this,” “This must be really frustrating,” or “What happened?”

  2. Show care and concern. When someone tells you a personal problem, chances are he/she doesn’t feel well and needs your support. Show care and concern. Ask, “How are you feeling?” to show concern. “Is there anything I can do for you?” is a great way to show support. If you are close friends, offering to talk on the phone or meet up, can make a big difference to them.
  3. Ask questions. Questions open a conversation. When someone takes the courage to share, especially a personal problem, asking questions encourages them to share more. Think about what the person said and ask meaningful questions. For example, say your friend confides in you that she just broke up. Asking questions like, “What happened?”, “Are you okay?” or “Why did you guys break up?” can help her open up. It also tells her that you want to hear more. On the other hand, giving nondescript remarks like, “I see, hope you can move on,” or “Breaking up is normal,” is not only unhelpful, but shuts them from opening up further.
  4. Mirror. A big conversation stopper is when someone types 10 paragraphs of text while you respond with one short line. Same when you respond to a deeply personal message with a mono-syllabic response, like “I see” or “Ok.” That’s because the person is being very open, while your response is closed off.

    This is where mirroring comes in. Mirroring means to imitate someone’s nonverbal signals — gesture, speech pattern, or attitude  — to build rapport. In my opinion, NLP practitioners have made a bad rep out of mirroring. They teach people to replicate a person’s mannerisms from head to toe. But this misses the point — mirroring is about connecting authentically with others. The goal is not to “copy” someone’s mannerisms blindly, but to use it to build rapport. For example, if your friend shares a personal fact, reciprocate by sharing a personal fact of your own (if relevant). If they make eye contact, reciprocate by giving eye contact. If they look away, look away and give them some private space. Don’t copy every aspect of their body language without thought. Instead, adjust your behavior to match their’s in tone and vibe.

  5. Don’t run ahead of the conversation. A big mistake I notice people making when someone is sharing a problem, is that they simply jump to the end point of the conversation.

    For example: Someone tells you he just got retrenched. You reply, “I see. Hope you can get a job soon.” What’s wrong with this? Firstly, the person just got retrenched, so he’s likely feeling hurt and depressed. The more empathetic thing to do is to understand how he is feeling first. Secondly, the person may be retrenched because the job market is bad. Saying “Hope you can get a job soon” can feel like you’re rubbing salt into a wound, because it reminds them of the uncertainty ahead.

    What will help is to (a) connect the person based on their current emotional state, and (b) move them forward with forwarding questions. In the retrenchment example, a good way to approach the conversation will be asking the following questions, in this order: “I’m so sorry to hear that. What happened?” → “How are you feeling now?” → “What are your plans?” → (and if he wants to look for a job soon) → “What kind of jobs are you looking for?” Insert other questions in between, depending on the exchange.

    Another example is say, if someone just broke up from a long-term relationship. Saying “Smile ~ Be happy” right away is insensitive as it downplays the person’s pain. Instead, ask questions like “How are you feeling?”, “Are you okay?”, “What happened?”, or “Do you want to talk?” to move them out of their pain. While you may have good intentions in telling the person to be happy, it doesn’t help as you are not recognizing their pain. How can someone in pain try to be happy? Put yourself in the person’s shoes. Pace yourself to match the person’s emotional state, rather than apply a filter to the conversation.

  6. Don’t judge. Judgment shuts off a conversation. This is the same for pre-judgement, which means forming a judgement on an issue (or person) before you have adequate information. For example, say your friend gets into an argument with her boss, and you assume she is in the wrong because her boss is a manager. Or say, your friend scored poorly for exams, and you assume that he didn’t study — even though there could be other reasons like family problems. The best way is not to pass judgment. Give the person the benefit of the doubt. Everyone is struggling to do their best in life, so why judge and bring someone down?
  7. Show emotional support. Last but not least, give emotional support. This means, give them your trust and affirmation. Encourage them. Let them know that no matter what happens, you have their back. One of the most supportive statements I have gotten is from my god-sister, which is: “Knowing you, I know that you always consider things very carefully. So whatever happens, I will support you.” Sometimes, what people are looking for is not answers. It’s also not solutions. Sometimes, all people are looking for is empathy and support. That in this big world of strangers, filled with fear and uncertainty, that there is someone here to support them, without judgment or bias.

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