Seven Steps to Empathy

EmpathyWithout empathy, it’s hard to have real relationship.

The good news is that since each of us has a natural capacity for developing and exercising empathy.

Are you practicing this marvelous gift in your life? If not, here is an acrostic that can help you become a more empathetic person:

  • Enlist all of your faculties
  • Move in physically, verbally, and emotionally
  • Pray for discernment
  • Ask caring questions
  • Think deliberately
  • Help in meaningful ways
  • Yield your convenience, pride, and resources

I’ll unpack each of these steps in detail later in this post, but first I’d like to provide a visual illustration of empathy and then explain the significance and neurology of this crucial relational ability.

Young Thai Man

If a video screen does not appear below, click here.

What emotions did you observe in the various people in this clip? Did you see the humiliation, hopelessness, frustration, and loneliness that the young man saw in the people around him? Did you see his kindness, gentleness, patience, hope and joy … and how his actions infused others with similar feelings? That’s the fruit of empathy.

A Lack of Empathy Inevitably Weakens Relationship

Unfortunately, this is not how people always treat one another. After mediating hundreds of conflicts, I’ve noticed that a lack of empathy is often a key contributor to family, church, and employment breakdowns. For example …

In failing marriages I often heard wives say, “We have no emotional connection whatsoever. He’s simply oblivious to my feelings and concerns. I just can’t take it anymore; I need someone who can actually relate to me.”

When teens withdrew or rebelled, they would often say, “My parents just don’t get me. I try and try to share my thoughts and struggles, but all they ever do is ignore me or lecture me.”

And in many employment disputes, I encountered a deep discouragement in employees who complained that their supervisors showed little concern for them as people and simply kept pushing the company’s productivity goals.

Of course I’ve heard similar statements in reverse from husbands, parents and supervisors who were grieved by a similar lack of empathy in the people they led. But because leaders’ strengths and weaknesses are magnified by their authority, their lack of empathy usually stood out more vividly and caused a greater amount of damage to a relationship.

Regardless of where this deficiency rested, I’ve heard far too many people in broken relationships echo an age-old lament, “I looked for comforters, but I found none.”

Before we look at ways to improve empathy, allow me to define three closely related concepts:

  • Empathy is generally defined as the ability to discern and vicariously experience the thoughts and feelings of another person, or more simply, to feel what others feel.
  • Compassion, which builds on empathy and literally means “to suffer together,” is a deep concern for another person who is suffering, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate that suffering.
  • Consolation, which is an outworking of compassion and literally means “to be with the lonely one,” involves action to alleviate or lessen grief, sorrow, or disappointment.

Since these terms are closely related, for the sake of brevity I’m going to roll them together throughout this post and refer to them collectively as “empathy.”

Two Warring Women

To illustrate these combined qualities, let’s look at a short video clip from Stepmom. Jackie (played by Susan Sarandon) is divorced and dying of cancer. Isabel (played by Julia Roberts) has married Jackie’s former husband. The two women have fought constantly over Jackie’s children through most of the movie. But in this scene near the end of the movie, their relationship is transformed as they finally show empathy for one another. (If a video screen does not appear below, click here.)

What emotions did you observe in Jackie? In Isabel? What was it that brought the wall down between them and helped each of them to feel what the other person was feeling? What indicated that they wanted to somehow alleviate the other person’s suffering? How did they console each other? What conveyed the most compelling message: their words or their tone of voice, tears, and body language? What can you learn from this clip?

The Neurology of Empathy

All human beings are neurologically “wired” for empathy. We are barely beginning to understand how he has done this, but one of the most intriguing theories involves a concept known as “mirror neurons.”

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) has revealed that when we observe actions or emotions in other people, certain neurons in our own brains light up as if we are the ones experiencing the event or the emotion. As a result, we “feel” another person’s experience as if we are actually going through it ourselves. This “mirroring” can cause us to react the same way as other people are reacting. This may be why one crying baby can set a whole room of babies crying.

We also see this gracious quality lived out on in our personal lives and also on a macro scale in the world around us. Recent examples include the massive benevolent responses to the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina in the U.S. (2005), by Hurricane Hannah in Haiti (2008), and by more recent tornadoes and earthquakes around the world.

When people are suffering, others with tender hearts naturally feel their pain and respond with comfort and support. That’s how we are designed, and when we live up to this design, everyone benefits.

Two Types of Empathy

Behavioral scientists often describe two types of empathy.

  • Cognitive empathy, sometimes called “perspective-taking,” is a deliberate and conscious intellectual process whereby we observe others and use our imagination and logic to discern what they must be thinking and feeling.
  • Affective empathy, sometimes called “emotional empathy,” is a more spontaneous process that causes us to actually feel what others are feeling, as though their emotions were contagious.

Seven Ways to Exercise Empathy

Studies have shown that it is possible to deliberately improve both cognitive and affective empathy. In fact, as you improve your ability to exercise one type of empathy you’ll usually find that the other type comes more naturally as well.

Here is a brief introduction to seven ways you can enhance your empathy. To assist you in remembering and practicing steps, I’ve organized them into an acrostic called EMPATHY.

1. Enlist all of your faculties and resources

Empathy is enhanced when you focus all of your senses, abilities, and resources on understanding other people. Use your time; slow down, relax, show that you’re happy to give others all the time they need. Use your ears; listen not only to others’ words but also to their tone of voice, which often communicates the most accurate information.

Use your eyes; note the emotions in others’ eyes and on their faces (excitement, sadness, uncertainty, weariness, etc.). Pay attention to their posture and body language (slumping, pacing, cringing, etc.), which often says what their words don’t.

Empathy is also enhanced when you make full use of your memory (“When have I gone through something like this?”), your imagination (“How would I feel if I was in her shoes?”), and your instincts (“What is he hiding, fearing, or really wanting to say?”).

2. Move in physically, verbally, and emotionally

People seldom share deep concerns quickly and fully. Instead they usually offer hints of their problems or concerns and watch what you do with them (like laying down a hand of cards one at a time). To draw people out, you need to send convincing signals that you care and want to help.

There are many ways you can do this. Physically, you can sit down close to someone to show you want to hear them out. You can lean toward them to show interest and concern. Look at them (not at a football game or your cell phone) to demonstrate focus. Use touch in appropriate ways; a warm hand shake with both hands, a gentle touch on the arm, or even a friendly hug can send a convincing message of friendship and concern.

You can also move in verbally to show that you are really listening and caring (“That must have been hard.” “I’m so sorry.” “Please tell me more.”) Don’t shy away because you can’t solve the problem or come up with perfect words. Sometime the best thing to say is simply, “I don’t know what to say but I’m so glad you told me.” Remember that your tone of voice and facial expression will often convey more meaning than your words.

You can also move in emotionally, mirroring what others are feeling (a smile for joy, a look of concern for suffering, or tears that match theirs.

3. Pray for discernment

Personally, I find prayer to be a key step in cultivating empathy. My natural inclination is to be selfish, lazy, and uncaring. Therefore, I need divine assistance to practice genuine empathy.

Therefore, I pray daily for greater empathy and compassion so I can engage others with a more selfless, sacrificial and effectual love.

4. Ask caring questions

Empathy does not have to be a guessing game. When in doubt, ask others to explain their situations, concerns, and feelings. This is often the simplest and most effective way to understand another person.

For example, when a friend of mine lost his job, I asked him, “How do you feel?” He cheerfully responded, “I’m sure God will take care of me.” To which I responded, “I know that’s what you believe, but how do you actually feel?” After a surprised pause, his shoulders slumped and with sadness in his voice he said, “I feel hurt and rejected.” That transparent comment opened the way for a very deep, heart-to-heart conversation.

So I encourage you to develop the habit of going beyond the traditional, “How are you?” and ask questions like these: “How are you, REALLY?” “What happened then?” “How do you feel about that?” “What do you plan to do next?” “You’re my friend, so I really want to help you; what can I do today that would make this situation easier to handle?”

5. Think deliberately

The human brain is capable of discernment, emotion, logic, imagination, and planning. Your ability to show empathy will skyrocket whenever you bring all of these abilities to bear at the same time.

You can do this by consciously asking yourself these kinds of questions as you talk with others: “What is she feeling right now?” “Why?” “How would I feel if I was in her shoes?” “When have I had a similar experience?” “How did I feel?” “How can I show that I understand and care?” “What should I not say right now?”

One of the best ways to develop the ability to think like this during actual conversations is to practice thinking like this as you read a book, watch a movie, or watch strangers across a room (one of my favorite pastimes when I sit in airports). The more you practice thinking like this in detached situations, the more naturally these thought processes will occur in up close and personal situations.

6. Help in meaningful ways

Once you discern what others are experiencing and feeling, true empathy will show itself in concrete action. This doesn’t mean you necessarily solve others’ problem, but rather that you are with them as they go through those problems. As Henri Nouwen wrote, “To console does not mean to take away the pain but rather to be there and say, ‘You are not alone, I am with you. Together we can carry the burden.’”

Sometimes this will call for words of encouragement or consolation. When you can’t do this face-to-face, a phone call, a handwritten note, or an email can be meaningful. I will never forget the friends who quickly communicated their concern and love for me when I was going through a trial, whether the loss of my parents or brother, setbacks at work, or major health crises.

Sometimes actions will speak loader than words. Just being nearby can send a powerful message, even if you don’t know what to say. My dad was like this. Although he was a very bright man, he sometimes had a difficult time articulating his concerns and feelings. But I’ll never forget the many times he just dropped by to show his deep interest in my life.

And of course, we should always be open to opportunities to share our resources with those in need. This may include the poor, those who are sick or in prison, or people whose lives have been turned upside down through the loss of a job or a natural disaster.

7. Yield your convenience, pride, and resources

True empathy can be very costly. It often requires that we give up our time and convenience, alter our personal agendas, let go of our expectations, change our priorities, or share our resources sacrificially. It can also require that we kill our pride, renounce personal prejudices, or let go of resentment and unforgiveness.

For example, after South Africa finally renounced Apartheid, one of their highest police officials, who had aggressively suppressed Black Africans for decades, dedicated his life to healing the wounds of his nation. As he traveled around the country, he always carried a small bowl and towel. At the beginning of every talk he gave, he knelt at the feet of at least one Black person and washed his or her feet, demonstrating his repentance showing compelling humility.

His words of repentance were very meaningful. But his willingness to yield his pride and dignity as he knelt on the floor conveyed an empathy that connected deeply with countless people whose hearts were finally freed from the hurts and the hatreds of the past.

One More Person

Many of the elements of empathy are vividly illustrated in this video clip from Schindler’s List. Oskar Schindler (played by Liam Neeson) was a German businessman who employed Jews during World War II to profit from their misfortune. Toward the end of the war his heart changed and he used his money to bribe Nazis to allow him to save 1,100 of his workers from execution. During his final parting with these workers, he realizes that he could have helped many others if he had acted earlier. As you watch this scene, note how empathy is flowing in both directions. (If a video screen does not appear below, click here.)

What emotions did you observe in Oskar? Why did he feel that way? How did he fail to live out the key elements of EMPATHY prior to this scene? (Enlist your faculties, Move in, Pray, Ask, Think, Help, Yield)? How did he begin to live out these elements toward the end of the war?

What emotions did you observe in the Jewish workers? Why did they feel that way? How did the Jewish workers live out the seven elements of EMPATHY? What can you learn from their example?

You and I Really Can Change

Some people seem to have a natural inclination and ability to exercise these seven qualities. For others, like me, they are not natural and therefore require deliberate work. In fact, it’s only been in the past two years that I’ve begun to make a deliberate, conscious effort to become a more consistently empathetic person.

I’m often clumsy and can still be clueless at times. At other times I say words that miss the mark. And it can still be hard for me to yield my pride and agenda. But bit by bit, I am learning to engage others with greater empathy and compassion.

– Ken Sande

Recommended reading: Raising Empathetic Children

Reflection Questions:

  • Describe a time when someone showed you significant empathy and compassion. What were the circumstances? What did that person do? How did it affect you?
  • Describe a time when you longed for empathy and compassion from others but did not receive it. How did you feel? How did the void affect your thoughts, words and actions?
  • Think of someone you know who is highly empathetic. Which of the seven qualities described above does he or she demonstrate most consistently? How does that impact other people?
  • Think of a person to whom you’d like to show greater empathy. Pick just two or three of the seven qualities of empathy and start practicing them with that person this week. Add one additional quality each week and notice how your relationship changes in the next two months.

Permission to distribute: Please feel free to download, print, or electronically share this message in its entirety for non-commercial purposes with as many people as you like.

© 2014 Ken Sande

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