3 Questions to Ask Yourself to Practice Empathy

“All parties are equally enriched when we perceive and respond to each other with empathy and compassion. After all, it’s the human bond that adds the music to the words in life.”

-Helen Reiss 

We are all human. We all get upset and we all want someone who cares and wants to help when we are in pain. However, nobody likes to watch someone they care about suffer. Often it’s uncomfortable for us, we don’t know what to say to console that person, and we sometimes end up stepping away in order to protect our own well being. However, research has shown that this type of approach doesn’t help you or the person who is suffering. In a recent study, psychiatrist Helen Reiss, found that Empathy, or the capacity to “feel with” and share others’ emotions,  deeply connects us with each other and helps us to work better together and more effectively.

A majority of Reiss’s research focused on empathy in health care. Since physicians interact with people who are in some kind of physical or emotional distress everyday, it makes sense that they would be prime candidates for observing empathy’s impact on well-being.  When faced with difficult diagnoses, many physicians may think that ignoring their feelings and creating an emotional distance is the best way to cope and provide professional service. However, Reiss’s research shows that by emotionally distancing themselves, physicians actually make patients annoyed, distrustful, and less inclined to follow their treatment recommendations, thus resulting in isolated, less effective, and more burned-out physicians.

So how should we all build stronger relationships and lasting results? By practicing empathy. 

What is Empathy?

What is Empathy? According to the Greater Good research center at Berkeley,  “Emotion researchers generally define empathy as the ability to sense other people’s emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling.” It’s a common misconception that empathy and sympathy are one in the same- Sympathy involves more of a passive connection, while empathy generally involves a much more active attempt to understand another person.

For you to treat others as they would like to be treated, it helps if you can put yourself in someone else’s shoes in an effort to understand their feelings, perspectives and needs. Not only does this understanding apply when someone is experiencing some kind of emotional or physical distress, but also in a business setting. A recent State of the Workplace Empathy study by Businessolver found that 87% of CEOs see a direct link between workplace empathy and business performance, productivity, retention and general business health, and managers who demonstrate empathy have employees who have better physical health and report greater happiness. 

Fostering an understanding for other people’s behaviors, needs and opinions means that meetings are enjoyable experiences because everyone is open to different ideas and ways of looking at things. It also means that people feel cared about and understood as a valuable part of the team. Any disagreements are settled much more easily and a respect and tolerance for varying opinions will begin to grow. 

3 Questions to Ask Yourself 

The great thing about Empathy is that it can be taught. Asking yourself these three questions is a good way to start practicing empathy in your everyday interactions:

1. What is this person feeling?

The first part of empathy is perceiving how the other person is feeling. Ask questions that help that person express what’s really going on and affirm what they’ve expressed with imagination, acceptance, and genuine understanding instead of simply repeating what they’ve told you.  By being present, actively listening and taking an interest in what the person has to say without judgement, you will make them feel heard.  Additionally, by maintaining an open posture, a soothing tone of voice and eye contact, you can help to encourage the person to open up more.

2. Have I ever felt this way?

Empathy is about going beyond recognizing another’s situation; it’s being able to imagine yourself in it. Although this person may be very different from you, it’s inevitable that there has been a time in your life when you have felt this way, which is the wonderful thing about being human. As the great American Psychologist, Carl. R. Rogers stated, “What is most personal is most universal.” 

3. How would I want to be treated if I felt this way?

Sharing in this person’s identity in the present moment can help you relate better and take compassionate action. Although people will have different needs and preferences which you will learn as you grow in your empathic understanding of that person, It’s hard to go wrong by responding with fundamental human virtues  such as kindness, respect, love, compassion, or service.

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