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How to Develop Empathy Skills

By: Ian Murnaghan BSc (hons), MSc - Updated: 25 Nov 2015 | comments*Discuss
 
Empathy Brain Skills Brain Listening

When people talk about intelligence and brain skills, there is sometimes a focus on knowledge, education and more academic kinds of thinking. Even where other types of skills are considered, they still neglect a valuable skill – empathy. While it may seem like a simple concept, it can be one of the most difficult skills to attain.

What is Empathy?

Empathy is when you have a sense of how another person is feeling and experiencing life. It is a willingness to try to understand what someone else is going through in his or her life.

While some liken empathy to walking in another person's shoes, other people say it is more of a 'walking beside' that person. You are not losing your own self in the experience but rather, bringing that person in beside you and offering support or recognition of their experience.

Why Develop Empathy Skills?

Empathy skills are paramount to many helping professions such as counselling. But the skills are ones that can benefit people in virtually any profession as well as in their personal lives as well. By communicating empathy to those around you, it shows you are listening to them and are acknowledging their feelings.

It may be a client struggling with addiction. Or, it could be a business client you are trying to convince can benefit from your product. In the latter, empathy would help because you are acknowledging the client's needs and challenges. Then, you can better respond by presenting the best product for their business. Even though empathy is traditionally more associated with helping professions, its ability to strengthen professional relationships can be significant.

Skill Vs. Feeling

Some argue that empathy is not something that can be learned as a skill. Rather, it is a feeling from one human being towards another. Others disagree and explain that having this feeling is not enough.

Instead, it needs to be effectively relayed to help communication and positive actions. This is where the skill part comes in – learning how to be more empathic not only helps you feel more connected to others but also, it shows you how to communicate that feeling. While a non-judgmental attitude and openness to hear the other person are key to feeling empathic, your response is the vital part of communicating empathy in a way that both sides benefit.

Learning Empathic Communication

If you have not been used to listening with empathy, then it may initially feel awkward or strange to approach communication in this way. Empathic listening is active listening, where the listener focuses on the feelings and experiences of the other person. That other person's experience is not minimised (e.g.. "Oh, it's not a big deal!") or attacked (e.g.. "Well it's your fault for doing that!"). Instead, the listener shows that he or she understands what is said. Examples for different areas of life include:

  • Counselling: "It seems as though you are very distraught over your loss of mobility since the accident."
  • Personal life: "I know you are frustrated with my lack of attention lately. I'm having a hard time at work and it's affecting us at home."
  • Career: "It sounds like you are very worried about this new competitor affecting your share of the market. I can hear that revitalising your brand is important to you."

Challenges in Empathy Skills

One of the difficult parts of communicating empathy is when you don't feel it towards another person. Perhaps you do not like a client or you feel angry with a partner. These kinds of judgmental feelings can be barriers because they leave you feeling less open and more defensive. It takes time and practice to identify when you have a barrier to experiencing empathy towards another person. It also requires that you respect their right to be heard and you make an effort to hear the feelings underlying their experience.

Practising Empathy Skills

There are many short certificate courses available through universities and other community establishments. A number of voluntary organisations that require these skills will train in-house and those who do the training often find that their skills are put to good use in business and personal lives as well. Empathy skills are somewhat of an unknown or ignored brain skill but can be one of the most important in helping you demonstrate good listening skills while showing you how to best connect with all kinds of people.

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Share Your Story, Join the Discussion or Seek Advice..
Andrea- Your Question:
Hello, my partner doesn't understand what empathy means, and he doesn't know how to explain his feelings either. I've tried to help him get in touch with his feelings, but it's frustrating and tiring. Because of this he and my daughter had many problems,till the point of stop talking completely. He says that he wants to fix the relationship,but I fear that if he can't understand how she feels it's going to be worst. What can I do to make him understand this?

Our Response:
This is really difficult for some people, especially those who have not been brought up in a demonstrative family. Try tapping in to the parts of your partner's behaviour/personality where you do sometimes see a flicker of something similar to an empathetic reaction - humour, passion and so on. Try and build on this so that he can develop it into a more obvious display of his feelings and to notice these in other people. Move on from humour to anger, love, impatience etc. It might also be worth looking into counselling to help this process.
BrainSkills - 27-Nov-15 @ 10:43 AM
Hello, my partner doesn't understand what empathy means, and he doesn't know how to explain his feelings either. I've tried to help him get in touch with his feelings, but it's frustrating and tiring. Because of this he and my daughter had many problems,till the point of stop talking completely. He says that he wants to fix the relationship,but I fear that if he can't understand how she feels it's going to be worst. What can I do to make him understand this?
Andrea - 25-Nov-15 @ 5:22 AM
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