By: Steve Gainey, MA, LLP, ADS, CAADC, EAC Clinical Specialist –The Merriam-Webster definition of empathy is “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another.” This can be something the person is experiencing now or in the past. This goes beyond cognitive thinking.
Cognitive thinking is logical and not connected to an individual’s feelings but contains some level of understanding in order to make a logical choice. While there is nothing wrong with cognitive thinking, empathy requires suspending egos and “living in the other person’s shoes”.
With empathy, we do not have to have been through the same or similar experience as the other person. It can help us relate, but keep in mind, that we may not have had the same feeling or experience.
For example, my mother died when I was eighteen. I remember telling a friend that I was angry at my mother for dying. A friend shared that her dad, too, had passed away, but she was not angry at him. My friend stated that my “mom did not choose to die”.
We can have empathy with not just humans, but also with animals. I do not know what a bird thinks or feels, but if I see a bird with a broken wing, I feel sympathy and empathy to what the bird is feeling.
There are times when we think we are being empathetic, but instead, the other person’s feelings are dismissed or ignored. Here are some examples of those times and the actions to take:
Short: When we give a quick reply of “that stinks” or “sorry to hear that” and move on with the conversation. This can cause the other person to feel dismissed and unheard. Instead, provide a listening ear and be quiet so the other person can speak.
Advice: We jump in with giving advice about what they are going through and need. For example, if a friend has a serious illness, you might say “Well, I would find another Dr. who can help you more.” This can cause the friend to feel dismissed because instead of listening to hear what they are saying, we are listening to respond. Listen to hear what they are saying.
Inopportune Optimism: Example: Someone loses a job and is told “It’s good your partner still has a job.” This discredits what they are feeling and makes them feel dismissed. Instead, listen to them and provide help or resources.
Telling too much of your own story: Sharing can be good and helps to build a connection but can turn the conversation to being about you. Be careful not to go on and on about YOUR experience when it is most helpful to just listen.
Comparing: This may be said in an attempt to bring perspective to the other person, but in reality, it is tone deaf to what they are experiencing. For example, saying “Others have it worse” will not only discredit what the other person is feeling, but infers that their suffering is insignificant because there are others who have “experienced worse.” With empathy, it is key to recognize what the other person is going through and be sensitive to it.
Be cognizant of the times when you feel you are showing empathy (or not) and reflect on this statement:
Seeing with the eyes of the other
Listening with the ears of another
Feeling with the heart of another
With loving kindness