Building Empathy

There is a lot going on in the world right now and this has led to increased levels of stress, tension, as well as compensatory coping mechanisms like substance use, sex, and escape via media or other things. My hope (perhaps it’s idealistic) for the world is that we can see all of these goings-on as opportunities. This is our chance to become more aware, open, and empathetic. Empathy is an emotional practice that can be learned and nurtured, it is a skill rather than just something that you have or don’t. There are some people who struggle with empathy and who may not even have the capacity for it, but that is the exception rather than the norm. Even those who find empathy difficult typically have the capacity, they just have not taken the chance to practice this skill. I recently did a series on empathy on Instagram (@sana_psyc) that seemed to resonate for a lot of people, so I wanted to bring some of the highlights here.

So what is empathy, really? Empathy, at core, is the ability to understand somebody else’s perspective and feelings. It involves truly listening to what another has to say, observing their non-verbal body language for additional information about how they feel, and asking questions to clarify our understanding. With empathy, we do not have to agree with the other person’s perspective or feelings, we are simply there to understand and validate. Again, validation does not mean agreement or that we share that opinion or have those feelings ourselves. I can observe and hear that you are upset about a local politician winning an election even if I voted for that person. In an empathetic conversation, we are not seeking to debate, convince others, or judge.

What is the role of sharing our own thoughts and feelings in an empathetic conversation? This depends. On what, you might ask? A few things. First, it depends on the quality and depth of your relationship with the other person. If this is somebody you know well and have, or would like to continue to have, a close relationship with then it might be appropriate for you to listen, understand, and validate their feelings and then share your own perspective with respect and “I” language, without the intention to change their mind or invalidate what they were saying. If you have concern or other feelings about that person, you can express that, “I am worried to hear you say that,” or “I have observed some things happening that are concerning to me. Can I share those with you?” We can bring a culture of respect, humility, and compassion into all of our dialogue. A second thing to consider is your motivation. If you strongly disagree with what the other person is saying, chances are your desire to respond is to convince them of something different then what they said. This usually does not go well in conversations that are meant to focus more on the process then the outcome. You can try it, but be prepared to leave the conversation feeling upset and frustrated and the other person may as well. Most people at most times want to be heard and validated, not given a sales job on how they should think or feel.

Can we practice empathy with ourselves? Yes! In fact, this is a great place to start practicing empathy and using some skills. What does this look like for self? It looks like taking time daily to ask yourself how you are feeling, review your day and the situations that you experienced to check-in how those felt, what worked and what did not work. It might also involve the use of affirmations and validating statements like, “I understand that I feel that way. I can accept that.” It involves embracing an atmosphere of culture and respect for yourself, though your brain may still be trying to invalidate your feelings and perspective along the way. The unhealthy part of our brains, or inner critic as some refer to it by, can be the most non-empathetic force we will ever encounter, so learning to disengage from that dialogue and build up healthy empathy within provides empowerment and strength.

What are the key elements to empathy? Openness, active listening (listening to understand and truly hear rather than waiting for your turn to respond), and unconditional positive regard. This was a term coined by Carl Rogers, a Humanistic Psychologist, which basically means appreciating the other as they are, for who they are rather than needing them to be anything different. This is the opposite of conditional love or regard, which is when we demand someone be a certain way before providing love or validation. “I’ll love you when…” Whereas unconditional positive regard is, “I see you and hear you.” That’s it. Simple, right? Simple, but not easy. Our own judgment, past programming, and feelings interfere with the practice of empathy but, with time and effort, it is something we can nurture and grow.

A recommended first step would be to work on active listening with others. Practice talking less and listening more. With yourself, I would recommend taking 15 minutes per day to sit down at the end of the day and reflect back, ask yourself how you felt as the day unfolded and what experiences were comfortable and not. This is the practice of trying to listen to and hear yourself.

Curious to keep learning more? Check out my YouTube video on Empathy.

By Paige Abbott, Registered Psychologist

Paige is a Registered Psychologist practicing in the province of Alberta, Canada. She has worked in the field for over ten years and deals with Addiction issues of all manifestations as well as Mental Health challenges. If you feel that you are struggling with empathy or any other emotional challenges that are holding you back, please seek out professional consultation in support in your local area. You are not alone and do not have to go at it alone.