A while back, I have written about empathy and about how it is not something that comes natural to most people (me included).
But what does empathy look like in practice?
It is certainly not to feel sorrow for someone’s issues. When we do, we tend to approach the relationship from a position of strength, it is kind of a top-down feeling. We do not really empathize with the other person, as we are not in the same “frame of reference”. Feeling sorry is more sympathy or compassion, and as Brené Brown brilliantly puts it, it is not something someone who is in trouble wants to receive.
Empathy is also not giving people a free pass for their problems. Again, this is an approach that assumes a position of power, and it is not fundamentally different from sympathy: we feel sorry for our colleague, and therefore we close an eye to the fact they are making a poor job.
Empathy is acknowledging the other person’s situation from a neutral, non judgemental position. In Ed Batista’s words, “we comprehend their perspective and emotions, and we are able to envision ourselves experiencing that perspective and those emotions under similar circumstances”.
And then, it is suspending our natural inclination to suggest a course of action, or give an advice to “fix” the situation based on our own experience. We stay there in their world, and we acknowledge it as it is. And if the time comes when it is expected of us to say something, paraphrasing a beautiful thought by Seth Godin, we do that from their own place.
When you have to do with somebody, you have no idea how many times this person has been kicked in the teeth. All you know is that they act in ways you would not. If you care about the outcome, the question is not ‘What would I do?’. The question is ‘If I had been exposed to what you have been exposed to, what story would resonate with me?’
It is possible to get better at empathy, and by doing that you will find you can establish more meaningful and stable connections. It is an investment worth doing.