5 Ways to Show Empathy
by Craig Moorman, Ph.D.
Practicing as a psychotherapist, my clients will often ask me how they can show more empathy to their spouse, children, or friends. Sometimes a spouse will specifically ask me to help a husband or wife to be more empathic. Often clients desire to show empathy and be more empathic but have difficulty knowing how to build the empathy muscle or are uncertain that they can be empathic. Yes, you can learn to be empathic! I have seen hundreds of clients over the years learn and practice empathy and, as a result, have seen their relationships flourish! Empathy can be practiced and learned!
What is empathy?
Empathy is the ability to get behind another's eyeballs and see and feel the world as they see and feel the world. It is the ability to experience someone else's feelings without becoming so emotionally involved in the other's feelings that you lose your judgment. Empathy plays a crucial role in all relationships. Empathy builds connections and is essential in maintaining healthy relationships. Brene Brown reminds us of the important of empathy in her statement: "Shame cannot survive empathy." Experiencing empathy from someone brings connection, feeling of safety, and warm positive emotion. Empathy can lift the spirit and heal emotional wounds.
Empathy is often sparked by curiosity. Curiosity opens up your mind and emotion to feel and experience the other. By practicing curiosity in combination with a reflective empathy statement, you are setting up your mirror neurons to be receptor sites for another person's experience. Curiosity creates attunement, and attunement creates empathy.
Empathy is a reach of one's imagination into the subjective experience of another. This reach and the tension in the space requires some practice and experience.
How can you practice the reach of empathy with your spouse, your children, friends, and others?
1. Listen to others without judgement or blame
A curious empathic person has no hidden agenda. Instead of sizing up another person and making assumptions, listen to others, and seek to understand others’ perspectives. Be willing to sit in the unknown and in the place of ambiguity, open and curious without driving to a specific conclusion or being invested in one particular outcome. Put past your agenda and ask yourself, “What are they experiencing?”
As you are listening, be supportive. Reflect without shaming or blaming. Focus on understanding. As you explore, seek to know the person. After you sense that the person is feeling known and understood, explore options to find the best solutions. And as you explore, stay more collaborative and less hierarchical.
2. Ask lots of open questions
A curious empathic person asks a lot of questions and uses interrogative pronouns: "how," "what," "when," "where," and "why." A curious person uses "why" prudently and sparingly since "why" can also imply judgment.
As you practice empathy, stay away from closed questions that can be answered with a yes or no. Ask exploring questions, such as, "How did you respond to this?" or "What were you feeling/thinking when this happened?"
Open questions create a sense of openness for the person you are talking to and for yourself.
When you talk with a curious person, you come away with the sense of being known. And when you are known, you feel a connection and experience positive emotion.
3. Be fully present
Empathy requires space, time, and patience. An empathic person gives their full attention, turns toward, and puts down or pauses what they are doing. Empathic people turn off their phones and focus on conversations. Empathy creates the space to be curious. When someone is multitasking on the phone while listening, cooking while talking to the family, looking down, and reading while being spoken to, empathy is not being nurtured. Remember that staying present creates the space for curiosity and heartfelt connection.
4. Practice empathy statements
One of the best ways to practice empathy is by learning and using empathy statements.
Empathy statements open your imagination, and imagination is essential in seeing the world from another's perspective. When using empathy statements, always follow up with careful listening and observation. And remember that you don't have to "get it right." You are attempting to connect to the other. If your empathy statement isn't spot on, simply respond with "tell me more" or "I'd like to hear more." Don't be hesitant to use an empathy because you are afraid of getting it wrong.
Showing empathy is vulnerability, and vulnerability is essential for creating connections and building relationships. Taking the risk to connect shows you care.
Here are some empathy statements that you can use and practice to build your empathy skills and open up your mind to others' perspectives in a non-blaming, non-shaming way.
- Tell me more.
- It sounds like you did everything you could.
- I can see how difficult this has been for you.
- The whole thing sounds so discouraging.
- I can see why you would be upset.
- This is so hard.
- I'm really curious, it sounds like you were feeling…
- I can't believe how well you're holding up considering all of the stress you're under.
- If that happened to me, I would be so (sad, mad, upset) too.
- What a (day, week, year) you've had!
- I hear what you're saying.
- It's totally natural that you would feel this way.
Empathy for Partners
- Things are tough right now, but I'm here for you, and I love you.
- You must have felt really…
- You must have felt so….
- It sounds like this is very hard for you. I want you to know that I love you.
- What you're saying makes so much sense to me.
- I wish I had been there with you when that happened. Is there anything I can do to help you with this?
- That must have hurt your feelings.
- I’m sorry you are going through this and are discouraged.
- It's perfectly normal to feel frustrated about this.
- If that happened to me, I would feel…
- You have had a difficult time, haven't you? Would you like a hug?
- I hear what you're saying.
- I would have a hard time with that too.
- That sounds like an impossible situation.
- It makes me so mad just hearing about it.
- You must have felt so…
5. Show and develop empathy with children
Developmentally, empathy is primarily "caught" not taught. If you are a parent, teacher, or coach, make empathy part of your emotional lexicon. As you show empathy to others, your children/ students/ players will pick up empathy through the mirror neurons in their brain.
When children experience empathy and tenderness from their primary caregivers and observe and experience their parents and family showing empathy toward one another, it primes and develops the neural pathways of empathy in the child's mind.
Like yawning, mirror neurons pick up the feelings of empathy and the movements of empathy, firing similar neural pathways of empathy that fired in the givers brain. Psychologist and writer Daniel Goleman explains that mirror neurons "operate like a neural Wi-Fi" to produce emotional transmission and physiological rapport.
A process known as Stay-Listening can help to nurture empathy in children. The Stay-Listening Technique helps children identify their feelings, understand their emotions, attune with you, and feel soothed.
The first step in Stay-Listening is body posture and positioning. Start by getting on your child's level—get on your knees or sit in a chair. Be attentive. Face your child. From this position of attunement, do the following:
- Identify with your child's feelings: "Are you feeling sad? You are feeling sad, aren't you?"
- Help your child understand their feelings: "You are feeling sad because I'm leaving, right?" "You don't want me to leave, do you?"
- Connect your child's feelings with yours: "I don't want to leave either. I feel sad too."
- Identify the feeling in your body and in the child's body: "I feel sad right here (pointing toward chest). Where do you feel sad?"
Attunement with a child creates connection. Practice turning toward, listening, stopping what you are doing, and staying present.
Empathy is a skill you can improve with practice. Practicing empathy not only helps you to connect to others; it allows you also to identify your own emotions and to stay better connected to yourself!