5 tips on giving the gift of empathy
Empathy is an important element of emotional intelligence, which needs to be developed and practiced to enhance personal and professional leadership.
You may be familiar with one definition of empathy as “feeling someone else’s pain”. It’s the idea that if someone is suffering, you are able to feel that person’s pain vicariously.
Empathy is also the ability to understand and share another person's experiences, emotions and feelings (and not limited to feelings such as sadness, pain or suffering). It is any and all feelings — even positive ones — to feel in union with another person, regardless of whether they reflect your own situation.
Developing the skill of empathy is to work intentionally to feel the emotions of another as your own, and to express understanding and support. It is also about giving the gift of the moment by placing your own experiences, beliefs, feelings, emotions and relative situation on pause in order to honor the other person’s moment.
The fact that you may be feeling empathic towards another person doesn’t necessarily mean that person is feeling your empathy. Empathy needs to be expressed in order to be felt.
I would like to share 5 simple tips you can develop, practice and enhance to improve your own process of honoring others with the gift of empathy.
1) Empathy is about the other person, and not about you.
Because empathy is a gift, in order to give it you need to agree to put yourself and your own experiences on pause for a moment and let it be about the other person, and not about you.
If a colleague from a different company shares good news like: “I’m so happy about my second year-end review, it went really well and I also received a generous gift card for dinner at M’s Steakhouse!”
Your reaction needs to remain focused on the topic at hand. A non-empathetic response might sound like: “Oh, I just got a huge promotion, a pay increase and a trip to Hawaii for my twenty years of service."
In this situation, you are missing an opportunity to give the gift of empathy by switching the focus to your own promotion. Your friend now feels compelled to honor your news, considered a longer achievement. Your friend’s joy will likely be diminished in comparison.
An empathetic response might be: “Congratulations! You are such an asset to the company, I’m glad they recognized your contributions. Enjoying dinner at the best steakhouse in town isn’t too shabby either."
2) Timing and context are critical when giving the gift of empathy.
A friend may share news with you that has no connection to another situation you are aware of. To give the gift of empathy, be mindful of your audience, timing and context.
If you are aware of something unfortunate that happened to one friend, be aware of the right moment to share it with another friend. Sharing at the wrong time could prevent you from being in the moment for someone else.
Let’s say a friend is going through a challenging divorce. Then another friend happily shares her engagement news with you: “Guess what? Mark just proposed to me last night! We’ll be getting married next August!”
To feel and express empathy for your recently engaged friend, you have to be able to compartmentalize the two situations by not bringing up the situation of your other friend’s pending divorce.
A non-empathetic response would be: “Engaged? Good for you! I’m sad to say my friend isn’t so lucky, her divorce is a mess!”
This completely changes the dynamic of the conversation. Your newly engaged friend may now feel bad something good has happened for her.
3) Empathy is about sharing someone else’s feelings, all feelings, negative and positive.
Remember empathy is to understand and share any and all feelings, even positive ones like happiness, joy, success, hope and optimism.
When a child expresses: “I’m so happy we get to play a lot of games at school," a non-empathetic reaction might be: “That’s because you’re in second grade, wait until you get to college. You’ll see, it won’t be all about playing games, you’ll have to work very hard and it won’t be as fun."
In this example, the adult is not able to understand and share the feelings of the child. The child is happy and expressing something that gives him or her joy.
An empathetic response could be: “How fun! What kind of games do you play? What is your favorite? It’s so nice that your teacher makes sure you play everyday and that it’s fun for you!” In this case, the adult is joining in on the child’s feelings of happiness.
4) Empathy is letting the person own his or her experience.
It’s not uncommon for some people to want to help someone who is going through an experience by providing a different context so as to prevent that person from owning their experience.
However, it can be empowering for people to go through their own experiences, which over time can be self-healing.
For example, if a colleague shared with you: “I’m so sad, my cat Gracie recently died. She was with me for 15 years!” And you react with: “It’s okay, don’t feel sad, cats only live about 15 years, so it was to be expected. Don’t worry; feel fortunate that you had her for so long. I can help you find another cat. Come on, we can go get a new cat this afternoon if you want?”
In this case, even though your intentions are good, they may prevent your colleague from going through her own grief and loss, which is important for her to process in her own way.
5) You need to be intentional in order to express empathy.
Be intentional about manifesting the empathy that you are feeling for a person who is sharing his or her situation. Perhaps use responses like: “I’m so sorry, there seem to be no words I can say to help you feel better” or “Is there anything I can do to bring you any comfort right now?”
No matter how hard the situation, there may be something you can say or do to make the person feel a little better, and that is to give the gift of empathy.
It is the gift of joining in the feeling, any feeling, and honoring the person’s situation by listening and believing. By staying focused on the person’s situation and by giving your gift of time, understanding, friendship, love and support.
I hope these 5 tips help you as you go on to be there for relatives, friends, colleagues and strangers with the beautiful gift of empathy, which is a gift from the heart.
Luis Moreno is VP of Marketing for Synchrony Financial and is the co-founder of The Twin Cities Business Peer Network, a 1,700-member organization that helps students and peers grow personally and professionally. Luis holds an MBA from the Carlson School of Management, is a Humphrey Policy Fellow, and is a member of the Minnesota Business (Real) Power 50 and the Young American Leaders Program at Harvard Business School.