self-awareness and empathy and how they relate to communication. These conversations have mainly been in the context of management and the skills that come with building a team, but it’s important that we understand that empathy is an extremely powerful interpersonal skill that can affect relationships in all the domains in our life.
Empathy is a term that is often misunderstood or compared with sympathy. So let’s start by defining empathy. Empathy is essentially one’s ability to understand and share the feelings of another. In the video below, Brene Brown gives a vivid description that will surely stick in your mind. Brown also states in her talks and books that empathy fuels connection, whereas sympathy drives away connection.
We all have our own perceptions of the world. We come from different backgrounds and those backgrounds provide the lenses in which we see the world. Our experiences, culture, opinions, religion, upbringing, and more, influence the way in which we see and judge the world. The challenge is to not judge others through our lenses, but to take the time to understand their perspective, and as the cliché goes – walk a mile in their shoes.
This is what empathy is about. In order to understand those around us, we need to check our perceptions, be careful of how we judge others and be able to recognize the emotions in others. Once we recognize the emotions in others, we can communicate with them on a level that meets their emotional needs. As the late Maya Angelou said, “I think we all have empathy. We may not have enough courage to display it.” Displaying empathy is a choice, a choice that can be challenging as it often involves vulnerability. Empathy requires joining others where they are and just being there.
Communication is one of the most important skills in life, and there are a number of elements that are essential to be an effective communicator. In our communication’s course at the center we often talk about the importance of active listening. However, lately I find that I have been guiding participants towards the importance of empathetic listening. Stephen Covey, in his well-known book the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, explains this concept as part of his Habit 5 “Seek first to underhand, then to be understood.” In this section of his book he discusses different types of listeners and the importance of being an empathetic listener. He believes that when we practice empathetic listening, the speaker feels the satisfaction of having been listened to and understood. Being an empathetic listener involves listening to not only what a person says, but also what they are feeling. We often listen in order to give advice, to counsel, to replay, to agree or disagree, to analyse and so on, but when we are being an empathetic listener we are listening to understand. Covey outlines the benefits to a relationship when one feels as though the other person is truly listening.
Whether you are communicating with your teenage daughter, a team member
at work, a friend or a spouse ask yourself if you are truly listening. Giving someone the feeling that you are truly listening can have a great impact on your relationship. This in turn increases the level of connection, connecting with those around us and leads us on a path to better relationships and a greater feeling of well-being.