In a busy, complex, stressful world, empathy is the glue that holds relationships together. Whether you want to connect with your colleagues, customers, or children, you need to master the art of empathetic communication.
Empathy is defined as the ability to detect other's emotions and understand their perspective. When people feel accepted and validated, it builds trust. It's what you need to comfort a grieving co-worker, get people on board with your ideas, or defuse tension with your boss, for example.
Humans are social beings and everyone has the capacity to develop empathy. It's a skill, and like any skill, empathy can be cultivated through intentional effort.
As an executive coach and human-behavior professor, I have an inside view into how the great leaders and high-performers practice empathy. Here are similarities I've observed in how they flex their feeling muscles.
1. They are fully present with others.
Empathetic people have a way of making you feel like you're the only one in the room. When they interact with someone, they give that person the gift of their full attention and respect, which is rare in today's hyper-distracted world.
2. They've mastered the art of active listening.
To truly support someone, you must first understand that person. Empathetic people take the time to understand their counterpart's priorities, preferences, and motivations. This requires listening non-judgmentally and leaving your assumptions at the door. Empathetic people use active listening skills to gain insight, including:
Reflecting: "What I'm hearing you say is..." or "It sounds to me like..."
Affirming: Smiling, nodding, or brief verbal affirmations like "I see" and "mm hmm"
Encouraging: "And then?"
3. They tune into nonverbal communication.
Communication runs deeper than words alone. If you notice someone tensing up, pulling away, or suddenly dodging eye contact, those are important clues that you can use empathy to reach out.
Rather than ignoring the emotion gently -- and with kindness -- ask them to describe what's happening for them. This gives people the freedom to share their feelings openly, knowing they won't be judged or criticized. Letting emotions flow freely can be a gateway to productive problem-solving.
4. They pause.
In an effort to be helpful, we often jump in to finish people's sentences, offer advice, or interrupt. Empathetic people know how powerful silence can be. They don't interrupt or talk over other people. They think before they speak.
5. They replace giving advice with asking questions.
Instead of offering their opinion, empathetic people ask questions to better understand another person's perspective, like:
How do you feel about it?
Can you tell me more?
What do you mean?
What would be helpful?
What do you make of it?
6. They speak in terms of "we," not "me."
Empathetic leaders shift to talking about how they'll tackle challenges as a team -- speaking in terms of "we" and "us" -- so other people feel empowered and supported.
Research shows changing your language is step toward adopting an empathic attitude. People who use more second-person pronouns are better at interpreting others' thoughts, feelings, and behaviors -- the essence of empathy.
When you want to genuinely connect with someone, create a bond by talking about your shared goals (i.e., "Let's talk about what we're going to do next to solve this," "We'll get through this").
7. They imagine others' point of view.
Empathetic people practice a skill called "perspective taking." In other words, they step into other people's shoes to imagine what fears they might be facing.
Do this exercise yourself by practicing (internally) to assume that person's point of view. Especially when you're dealing with a difficult person, it's important to assume positive intent. That is, give people the benefit of the doubt that they are coming from a respectful place, not a malicious one.
This mindset shift can do wonders for your mood and ensure you stay in an empathic state.
Even if you have moments where you're less compassionate than you'd like, following these highly empathic habits can help you keep what's important at the forefront: connection.
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