Empathy: What is it and why is it so important?
Let me make you a guarantee: Empathy will make you a better spouse, parent and friend.
Empathy is ‘the ability to understand and share in the feelings of another person’.
It can be maddening when our loved ones fail to understand what we are feeling – especially in stressful and difficult situations. Conversely, it is comforting and reassuring when they DO understand what we are experiencing and feeling in difficult times. Feeling understood makes us feel less alone and more supported when we most need it.
Not feeling understood might be compared to a clogged drain. Lack of empathy in a person blocks that person from being able to understand what their loved one is feeling in regards to a situation. This lack of understanding causes an emotional disconnect or blockage between us and our family member.
Like a kink in a water hose, not being understood by another person blocks the needed assurances of emotional love and support we need from them. Important feelings, like depression, fear, anger, and hopelessness, are not able to be picked up and registered by those who matter most to us. The result is those people who matter most to us are not able to respond to us in the ways we need and desire.
Empathy is like emotional Drano – it dissolves these blocks, allowing our feelings to be received and understood by our family members once again.
Let me share with you 5 suggestions for increasing your empathy with others.
i. Be Self-Aware.
Empathy begins with you. Are you in touch with your own emotions? In stressful situations, ask yourself, “What am I feeling right now? How would I describe my own emotions in this situation to another person?”
The truth is having empathy for another person will be near impossible if you cannot recognize and process your own emotions. Become more aware and in touch with your own feelings, especially negative ones.
ii. Observe the Other Person’s Body Language.
How many times have you said, “I can tell you are upset by the way you are acting.”? We all have certain facial expression and non-verbal behaviors (slamming a door, avoiding eye contact, sighing, etc.) we engage in when we are upset, hurt, and/or angry.
These non-verbal actions are ways we express and communicate our emotions to the outside world. Responding with empathy to these nonverbals is to say, “You seem upset. What is going on?”, without the upset person having to tell you they are upset. What this says to the other person is,
‘Because I care about you and know you, I am aware that something out of the ordinary is going on with you right now. Because I care I want to know more about what is going on.’
iii. Listen Without Talking
The goal of empathy is to clearly UNDERSTAND what the other person is feeling. The only way I know to do this is to quietly LISTEN to what the other person is saying. You cannot do this if you are busy talking to them. This is not the time for you to lecture and offer advice.
Just be quiet and listen with the goal of seeing your loved one’s situation from THEIR perspective.
Silently ask yourself, “What must that situation have felt like for them, knowing them as I do?”
Many husbands struggle greatly in this area. Seeing ourselves as “fixers” we immediately begin giving advice to our wife and kids instead of just listening. You cannot talk and listen at the same time. And you cannot understand another person’s perspective until you carefully listen.
iv. Suspend Judgment
Showing empathy is also not the time for passing judgment on the other person’s situation or their particular reactions to their situation.
Comments like, “I can’t believe you did that!”, “I can’t believe you feel that way” will SHUT DOWN the empathy process and send the message to your loved one that you are not a safe or helpful person to confide in.
There may be a time for judging the rightness or wrongness of your family member’s reactions later, but judgment shuts down empathy. The goal of empathy is to communicate to your loved one that you UNDERSTAND what they are feeling – REGARDLESS of how YOU personally feel about the situation.
v. Use Reflection Statements.
If empathy is understanding another person’s feelings, a reflection statement is verbally expressing your understanding of those feelings in a short sentence or two. The focus of your reflection statement is always on the other person’s feelings and not your own.
Examples of Reflection statements:
“You are angry because your brother broke your toy.”
“You are feeling frustrated because I didn’t do what I promised.”
“You are depressed because your best friend is moving away.”
An easy formula to use is: ‘You feel ______ because ______.’
The only way to fill in the blanks in the formula above is by listening to your loved one in a neutral manner (without judging, etc.)
A good Biblical definition of empathy is:
— the capacity to feel another person’s feelings, thoughts, or attitudes vicariously.
How do you get a “feel” for another person’s feelings and thoughts? You listen carefully and neutrally.
Biblical Empathy Includes COMPASSION
The Bible says,
“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, He comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others.” (2 Corinthians 1:3, NIV)
Our God is the God of compassion and all comfort. This should be our goal with empathy. We make it our goal to understand a situation from the other person’s perspective. In doing so our empathy gives them comfort (“It feels so good to know you understand what I am feeling”), and being compassionate in this process adds even more comfort and reassurance.
In turn, this support and compassion motivates our loved one to feel the confidence and strength to positively deal with their situation.
The Bible says about Jesus,
“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.” (Hebrews 4:15, NIV)
The International Children’s Bible translate this verse,
“For our high priest is able to understand our weaknesses. He was tempted in every way that we are, but he did not sin.”
During His earthly ministry Jesus experienced difficult situations with people on a daily basis. He knows what it is like to be tempted, to be angry, to be rejected, and to be disappointed, by one’s fellow man/woman.
Today, Jesus is in Heaven with God, using His experiences on earth to empathize with us as He represents us before God the Father.
While we are not Jesus and do not have His experiences and divine insight we DO have a way of relating to people with empathy.
What we have is the ability to listen and to listen carefully and thoughtfully.
Yes, our empathy can be helped if we have experienced the same situation as the other person but it is not better than truly ‘hearing’ what someone is telling us.
We must be careful with how much confidence we put in to shared experiences with another person as a means of empathy.
Just because you are both cancer survivors, or both widows, doesn’t mean your experience was just like their experience. Don’t assume and jump to conclusions. Though there may be similarities no two people experience difficult events exactly the same.
Nothing is superior to genuine, heartfelt listening.
The Bottom Line
Empathy is the ability to understand the emotions and thinking of another person. Empathy cannot happen in the absence of understanding another person’s perspective.
Empathy greatly strengthens the lines of communication between us and those we love. Empathy tells our loved ones that we care enough about them to want to understand exactly how difficult situations are affecting and impacting them.
Empathy says, “I care about you and want to understand what this situation is like for you”.
This is why empathy will make you a better spouse, parent and friend.
*For the Family*
— dr. bill