In part four of our ongoing series on Emotional Intelligence, we are going to discuss Empathy. Empathy is defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person. A lot of you have probably heard the general advice of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes in an effort to better understand a situation, and that is basically what empathy boils down to. When a person is more empathetic, they tend to have stronger and more trusting relationships with those that are around them.
As with all pieces of Emotional Intelligence, empathy is a skill that can be practiced and developed with time and effort. In this article, we will provide some tips and techniques for increasing your sense of empathy, which will be useful in all of your future interactions.
A large part of being able to be empathetic is centered around our ability to be active participants in our conversations with others, and listening to them with the intent of understanding what is being said. When we focus our energies into truly grasping what someone is expressing, it becomes easier for us to think about the context of what is being said, from their mindset.
Here are a few tips to practice your active listening skills:
- Provide nonverbal cues that you are listening to the other person in your conversation by looking them in the eyes, nodding, turning your body towards theirs, and smiling. These acts can show that you are listening and hearing what is being said.
- Do your best not to interrupt the other person in your conversation. Sometimes we get so excited about a topic that we want to get our thoughts out quickly, but when we interrupt someone else, it can be viewed as a lack of value for what they are saying, or disrespectful.
- Silences and pauses in a conversation are okay! If you find yourself constantly trying to fill silences in discussions, take a step back and allow that empty space to sit for a while. This will give the other party a chance to fully explain their thoughts, while you are actively showing that you respect them and are providing the time they need to formulate their ideas.
- Do your best to be impartial and non judgemental when talking to others. When we go into a conversation with someone else with our mind already made up that what they are saying is going to be one way or the other, we can miss the chance to truly connect with that person.
Reflections on Relationships
Empathy is like any other skill, and if we actively seek to develop this sense, it will become easier for us to naturally incorporate into more aspects of our lives. One exercise we can practice is by simply reflecting on our interactions with others.
Think about someone in your life that you talk to, or see often. Take a few minutes to reflect on the last interaction you had together. How did your conversation go? What emotions did they express in your communication?
After you recall that interaction, dig a level deeper. Were there any nonverbal clues that matched what they were expressing?
Some common nonverbal cues are:
- Focus in the conversation vs fidgeting with their hands or shuffling their feet
- Full eye contact vs someone avoiding meeting your gaze
- Standing or sitting tall vs a slouched posture
- Arms used animatedly in discussion vs being crossed in front of their body
- Being engaged in conversation vs being distracted and checking a phone or clock
After you reflect, if you notice that there were some nonverbal cues that you might have missed during the interaction, you can feel free to reach out and check-in. Just a simple message like: “I noticed that last time we talked, you didn’t seem quite like yourself. Are you doing okay?” can make all of the difference to someone.
As you pay more attention to your interactions with those that are around you, you will be surprised to see how much easier it becomes to pick up on nonverbal cues. This will help you to create a deeper level of understanding with people that you interact with, whether they are old friends or new acquaintances.
Curiosity is an important piece to empathy. In order to be actively seeking to understand someone else, we need to be actually curious about what is going on in their life, and what they are saying.
The hardest part about putting yourself in someone else’s shoes is that we tend to be confined in our nature by what we know, what we have learned, and what we see. It can be hard for us to break free from what makes us comfortable and put ourselves into another mindset, especially if we do not have a lot of exposure outside of our own lives. Thankfully, we can work on expanding our views and practicing curiosity, which in turn will make it easier for us to begin to understand others.
Here are a few exercises that you can practice to expand your curiosities, and therefore, your mindset:
- Pick someone in your life that you do not know very well on a personal level. This can be a coworker, a family member, a neighbor, or an acquaintance. Go and have lunch with them, and practice your active listening in your conversation. Put away your phone and any other distractions, and focus on the conversation at hand. Ask questions about their life and get to know them on a deeper level. This can provide you the opportunity to not only strengthen your relationship, but to also practice your active listening skills.
- Follow people on social media that have a different background from you. Pick someone who comes from a different country, practices a different religion, or is on the opposite political spectrum. This can be an opportunity to expand your mindset by exposing yourself to someone new.
When we expose ourselves to new lifestyles and possibilities, it will make it easier for us to understand more about that person, or people in similar situations. In turn, that will provide us the opportunity to be more present in conversations and interactions with people who are different from ourselves.
All in all, empathy is a useful skill that can be beneficial in our everyday lives. It can provide us the opportunity to further the bond with our children, turn acquaintances into friends, and build a network of support that many of us need in these strange times.