Empathy and how to increase and improve yours is what this article is all about. Empathy is a vital tool for me as a teacher and my experience is what has stimulated me to write this today. I’ll explain…..
I have been in the classroom for the past four days. I ran a couple of one day classes, then spent the weekend delivering the seventh module of our current hypnotherapy practitioner diploma course. The classroom was filled with absolutely lovely people. I mean, just look at this lovely bunch – this is what it looks like when a classroom is filled with 32 self-hypnotists hypnotising themselves…. (here is an article all about how to use self-hypnosis to advance your empathy by the way)
With the one day seminars, they are also CPD (continued professional development) for trained hypnotherapists from a variety of differing backgrounds and open to members of the public, and so on occasion I am met with some slight challenge from hypnotherapists who have had a particular type of training and background. In particular, if I suggest that there is a lack of evidence for a popular theory that they hold dear; typically most hypnotherapists do not respond with an open mind, but instead feel affronted. That is, they have invested money, time belief and experience in certain ways of doing things and for someone to suggest that there is little quality evidence to support that approach or that model, can sometimes be a bitter pill to swallow! I get that and it is a challenge that I have within my work and have encountered throughout the years.
The answer has been that the ‘spoonful of sugar’ that helps the medicine go down, is to discuss, educate and deliver quality information with an underpinning best intention and desire to serve that individual. Not to attempt to belittle or take some intellectual high ground. On the contrary, I think the real key to being able to educate a student in my class with previous, conflicting training, is to empathise. To have empathy, and as much as possible, to be empathetic. That is my subject matter today, and it is something that I find to be incredibly important as a hypnotherapist, as a teacher, lecturer, author, and of course as a Father, husband, friend and peer to those within my personal and professional circles. I think it is useful for anyone in any walk of life to know how to develop empathy, and that is what this article is all about today.
Many people guess incorrectly about the best way to reach out in empathy to others. Yet identifying with others is one of the chief means we gain likeability, one of the effective ways to positively influence others, which is important to me when teaching. Of course we don’t empathise with others simply to increase influence; with any communication, we aim for win/win where both people leave that communication feeling happy.
Research suggests that a process of systematic reasoning outperforms gut instinct for understanding what other people are thinking and feeling. This counters our own self-perception that gut instinct would be the best means to empathise. As author Dr. Jennifer Lerner, states:
“Cultivating successful personal and professional relationships requires the ability to accurately infer the feelings of others – that is, to be empathically accurate. Some are better at this than others, a difference that may be explained in part by mode of thought. Until now, however, little was known about which mode of thought, intuitive versus systematic, offers better accuracy in perceiving another’s feelings.”
A great deal of our empathy and “reading” others ability is actually fostered throughout our lives and has developed as a result of influences from family, friends, teachers and so on.
Contrary to popular opinion, people of high intelligence with strong inductive logic aptitudes also foster the ability to empathise. Highly analytical types, typically thought to be poor at emotional intelligence, actually have a high advantage in understanding what others are thinking and feeling if they apply themselves to that end.
Science suggests that we are naturally wired to be empathetic. The mirror neurons in our brains indicate that we are hardwired for empathy. Yet, we know from personal experience we don’t feel equally empathetic, if at all, towards all people at all times. There are many reasons for that including the fact that we feel empathy for those we consider similar to us or in scenarios we can imagine ourselves in. A highly regarded study conducted by the Samaritans points out that when we are hurried, distracted, lacking focus, or emotionally charged – which many of us are most of the time – we are unlikely to display helpful behaviours or empathy. However, there is growing evidence that we can overcome the blocks to empathy and develop or reconnect with our empathetic faculties. We can bolster our empathy in the same way we can develop other emotional skills.
When you encounter a situation that evokes empathy, remind yourself of these points:
1. Pay Attention:
This point could just as easily have been titled ‘be present’ – which I think is incredibly important, no, it is essential for effective communication and for garnering empathy.
Stop, breathe, and give full attention to the person sharing his or her experience with you. Very often we don’t feel empathy because we are not listening and our mind is racing to the next task. Remind yourself to stop rushing and come back to the person before you. Give them the gift of your full presence.
Bring awareness to how what they are saying is making you feel, think and behave – how are you responding? Pay attention to your breath and bodily sensations. Notice if the breath is flowing easily or if there are places in your body where there may be tightness. As you soften all that is rigid within you, notice the emotions surfacing within you, the thoughts that are entering your awareness (and those at the back of your mind) what is the mood of your feelings, thoughts and subsequent behaviours?
On occasion, this may require you to connect with your own sensitivities or something that is raw and vulnerable within you, which is why you may avoid going there. Resist the temptation to distract yourself or give a superficial response to avoid truly feeling what you are feeling. Recognise your own process and respond with warmth and good intention as much as is possible.
3. Adopt a Position of Wisdom:
Based on emotions you may be feeling, find an authentic way to articulate them. Avoid giving a generic sympathetic response. Instead, think wisely, adopt the role of someone who is wise and cultivate an ability to find the right words to express how you feel at the time and that, which is kind and well-intentioned. Sometimes, listening in silence without judgment and letting the person know that they are heard maybe the best way to express empathy. Become Confucious!
4. Validate the Other Person’s Perspective:
Once you understand why others believe what they believe, acknowledge it. Remember: acknowledgement does not always equal agreement. You can accept that people have different opinions from your own, and that they may have good reason to hold those opinions.
Do not judge. Accept where they are at, and even if you disagree, do not judge. Accept and offer up your own honest stance without judgement, but with a sense of wanting what is best regardless.
5. Practice the Act of Empathy:
Adopt the role of being empathetic. Act as if you are empathetic and it will start top happen more readily.
In a potentially problematic situation where you still want or need to empathise with someone who opposes you, or is attempting hostility with you, ask the question, “what assumptions could they have in place that is leading them to this action or conclusion?” List those assumptions. Also ask, “what behind the scenes personal battles or life situations might they be facing which are influencing their reactions?” This allows you to “put yourself in another person’s shoes” through understanding the other person’s perspective and reality. Reflect on when similar challenges were present in your life, and how it affected your responses. This will allow you to give them grace and have more empathy.
You might explore other types of Socratic questions and ways of stepping into other people’s shoes when you are with them.
6. Examine Your Attitude:
Are you more concerned with getting your way, winning, or being right? Or, is your priority to find a solution, build relationships, and accept others? Without an open mind and attitude, you probably won’t have enough room for empathy.
If you simply wish to gain some sort of an upper hand, you are unlikely to really build empathy. Faux empathy will be detected too, it needs to come from a genuine place whereby you wish for both you and the other person to come out of the interaction well.
Active listening is more than just listening.
Actively listen to the entire message that the other person is trying to communicate.
• Listen with your ears – What is being said, and what tone is being used?
• Listen with your eyes – What is the person doing with his or her body while speaking?
• Listen with your instincts – Do you sense that the person is not communicating something important?
• Listen with your heart – What do you think the other person feels?
Active listening is also putting aside your thoughts about what you are going to say next. You listen without judgement, and without trying to work out your own response in that moment. You listen deeply, with presence and focus.
8. Ask What the Other Person Would Do:
Seek clarity before making assumptions. If you do not have enough information, do not just project your own meaning or make guesses about what is going on for this person.
When in doubt, ask the person to explain his or her position. This is probably the simplest, and most direct, way to understand the other person. However, it’s probably the least used way to develop empathy. It’s fine if you ask what the other person wants; you don’t earn any “bonus points” for figuring it out on your own.
The good news is that you do not have to possess some sort of incredible gut level ability to empathise with others, and in fact, I would not rely on ‘natural’ or ‘innate’ empathy, instead I’d aim to cultivate and develop it practically and by applying the right intention. If you simply commit yourself to thinking about how you think and intentionally practice it, you can become more empathetic. And everyone likes someone who more identifies with him or her as a person.
Here is a fabulous self-hypnosis process to help advance empathy and really build upon these principles too.
I really like the points you raised in this article. All of them certainly encompass a level of self reflection and awareness that does not only improve empathy, but all levels of proficient human communication.
Thank you Matthew, I agree.
Best wishes to you, Adam.