In order to start practicing empathy we need to know what it is and isn't. I think this video best describes that for us. Empathy is going to where the other person is at and feeling with them, without making it about you.
The video also tells us that according to Theresa Wiseman there are 4 parts to giving empathy:
1. perspective taking
2. staying out of judgement
3. recognizing emotion in other people
4. communicating that
Brene Brown sums this up as feeling with other people and in order to do that we have to connect to something inside ourselves. But how do we do that?
What we want is get to a place where we truly understand and are able to connect. You can feel it when that happens. Whether it is in a situation where one person is upset or two people are upset with each other. Giving empathy helps us to feel with each other, to find that deeper connection.
One of the most important prerequisites for this to happen, is making sure the other person feels fully heard. This might be the most difficult thing to do, because we have to completely park our own story at the sideline. But active listening is not about you, it is about being there for the other person.
And there are two ways we can practice active listening. By being silent and just making space for what needs to be said and by repeating back what you've heard to check if you understood correctly and make sure the other person knows their story was heard. Both of these take practice and it might be a bit mechanical in the beginning, but it does become more natural as you continue. Practicing mindfulness helps, as it teaches you that you don't have to engage with every thought that pops up, which is going to be one of the most difficult parts to this in the beginning. We really want to give advice, correct them, give our perspective or tell them about this time when something similar happened to you. Don't, just be there, listen and repeat back.
When you use this technique with someone you are upset with, choose a moment in which you are both ready to listen. Sit down together and take turns. Decide who gets to talk first and the other will just listen and repeat back until they feel empty of words. Then the turn is for the other person, same thing, listen and repeat back. When you do this it can be very helpful to focus your story on these few things: What happened (observation), how did you feel about that, what needs were not being met and what could the other person do that would make life more wonderful for you and why.
In the end you want to come to a place with the other person where understanding and being understood align with each other. That is when the feelings connect and the magic happens.
It is very helpful to practice these techniques with other people who are also interested in practicing empathy. And if you are interested to delve deeper into these techniques, I can recommend you to read the book Nonviolent communication by Marshall Rosenberg.
If you want to practice with me (alone or with your partner), send me an email on email@example.com and we can arrange a time and place in Melbourne.
You might also be interested in: How to relax when you don't have time for it.