If it were me, I’d pick a different career. If it were me, I’d end the relationship. If it were me, I wouldn’t think so much about it. Have you tried taking a real break? Have you considered that other option?
We think empathizing with someone is wondering how we’d feel or react in the same situation.
But empathy isn’t any of these actions.
According to psychologist and empathy researcher Lidewij Niezink, Ph.D, the latter is actually called an “imagine-self perspective.” Which means we focus on our own experiences as if we are in the other person’s shoes. Which is limiting. Because when we consider how we’d feel, think and react, we don’t learn anything about the other person—and we might even make erroneous assumptions about them.
Take this 2014 study as an example. In it, a group of participants completed difficult tasks while wearing a blindfold. Then they were asked how well they believed blind people could be at working and living independently. The participants judged blind individuals as less capable than participants in a different group who didn’t undergo the blind simulation. That’s because they were focused on what blindness feels like for them.
Instead, to really empathize, Niezink said, we need to ask ourselves the question: “What is it like for a blind person to be blind?” This is an “imagine-other perspective, focused on the experiences of others.”
Empathy is a relatively new word in the English language, according to Whitney Hess, PCC, an empathy coach who works with individuals and groups. It originates from the German word “Einfühlung,” which means “feeling into.” It originally described the vicarious response people have when viewing art, when feeling into someone else’s self-expression, Hess said. “That term over time was adapted to capture the ability that we have as human beings to feel into the emotional state of another person.”
In a nutshell, empathy is presence, Hess said. “It is being in the present moment with another human being feeling into their experience.”
Empathy is not figuring out the right words to say or trying to erase a person’s pain. It is not wanting things to be different than they are. It is not saying, “Cheer up! It’ll be better tomorrow,” or “Don’t worry about it! You’re beautiful. You’re brilliant. You’ll get another job in no time,” Hess said.
Niezink breaks empathy down into five layers, which together hold a container for the experiences of another person:
- Self-empathy: observing your own embodied sensations, thoughts and needs in order to differentiate self from other.
- Mirrored empathy (synchronization): physically synchronizing with the other person, by embodying and mirroring their movements, facial expressions and posture.
- Reflective empathy (emotion): listening fully to what the other experiences and reflecting that back until one is fully heard.
- Imaginative empathy (cognition): imagining the situation from as many different perspectives as possible and embodying these perspectives.
- Empathic creativity: all that is learned from the experience of others in order to act adequately. This might mean doing nothing, solving a problem or making a difference.
“Empathy is a practice,” said Niezink. “[Y]ou need to work on it, just like you do when mastering mathematics.” She suggested checking out her free e-book, which delves deeper into practicing the above empathy phases.
Hess stressed the importance of first empathizing with ourselves. This is vital. Many of us have a hard time sitting with someone else’s pain simply because we can’t sit with our own. We don’t take the time to understand or connect to our own range of emotions, Hess said. Maybe, over the years, we’ve learned to ignore, avoid or discount our feelings.
It’s also important that we distinguish between our own thoughts and feelings and the other person’s experience, Niezink said. “If we do not distinguish self from other, we might find ourselves projecting our own feelings and needs upon others.”
To practice self-empathy, separate observations from judgments, Hess said. She shared this example: A judgment is saying, “My boss doesn’t think I’m capable of doing a good job.” An observation is saying, “My boss gave me a low score on my performance review,” or “When we have our weekly check-ins, he rarely looks me in the eyes.” In other words, what have you witnessed? (After all, we can’t witness someone’s thoughts. As Hess said, at least not yet.)
After we’ve observed the situation, we can explore our feelings. For instance, “when I received a low score on my performance review, I felt disappointed, ashamed and confused.”
Another technique is empathic listening, which comes from Stephen R. Covey in his seminal book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change. As Covey wrote, “The essence of empathic listening is not that you agree with someone; it’s that you fully, deeply, understand that person, emotionally as well as intellectually.”
That is, you go into the conversation with the aim to understand the person. Which means you aren’t focused on what you’re going to say when they’re done. Again, you are present with the person, paying attention to their words, gestures and reactions (this is exactly what Niezink means with reflective empathy).
According to Hess, it’s understanding that “whatever the person says, however they feel, whatever they need, is true for them.” This is how we genuinely empathize with someone’s pain or joy: We listen to and respect their truth—without judging it, without trying to eliminate it, without trying to change it.
This is not easy. But it is powerful. It is powerful to empathize, to create a space for someone that lets them be exactly who they are, that lets them feel fully heard and understood.