Empathy does not mean you understand someone’s experience because you have been there, too. You can never really know what someone is going through, and even if you’ve had a similar experience, it’s always going to be a bit different.
Real empathy is the ability to listen fully so you can come to understand why someone is thinking, feeling, and acting in a certain way, from their perspective. You understand, without judgment, what triggered someone’s reaction or what prompted them to make a decision at the moment—and you seek to understand that person so they feel heard and valued. If you feel you could use some help developing real empathy, here are five useful steps for improving this vital communication skill.
First step: Don’t assume you understand. Summarize the words you hear and share the emotional shifts you notice. Let them respond with agreement or corrections.
Second step: Stay present. They may say something that triggers a personal memory for you. Use curiosity to return to listening so you don’t get your story blurred with theirs.
Third step: Manage your filters. We naturally hear what fits our assumptions and beliefs. We tune out what contradicts our views. Let yourself be surprised by how they define a situation. Look for new details and angles in their story you didn’t expect to hear.
Fourth step: Don’t commiserate. When they talk about things they say are bad and wrong, ask what is behind their judgment. Don’t jump in and agree. As soon as you say their judgment is right, you have tuned out to listening for more.
Fifth step: Remember the goal is to understand their perspective, not fix their problem. If you jump in early with advice in the conversation, they will shut down or become defensive because they no longer feel heard. If you give solutions later without asking if they want your ideas, you run the risk of them discarding what you offer without consideration. Empathize first and reflect. Then you can ask if they would like a few ideas or some coaching to find a solution.