Empathy is a prominent buzzword, but what does it really mean, and what does it not mean? Empathy is not sympathy, but it is understanding. It’s not a rush to judgment, but it is a swift patience to understanding.
- To be empathetic communicators, we first need to be empathetic. So, what's empathy and what does empathy look like in the real world? Empathy is defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person. So, there are two types of empathy, affective empathy and cognitive empathy. Affective empathy, also called emotional empathy, is the kind of empathy that we all have inherently.
This is where we react to another person's display of emotions. If someone is crying, we get them a tissue. If someone is smiling at us we smile back. Cognitive empathy or perspective taking is what happens when we're trying to be actively empathetic. Cognitive empathy is when we're attempting to feel what the other person feels in order to better understand and engage with them. To further explain what empathy is, let's discuss what empathy is not.
And empathy is not sympathy. Sympathy is feeling sorrow or pity for another person's misfortune. How does this compare to empathy? Let's break that down. Sympathy describes your feelings about another person or situation. Empathy is when you're removing your feelings and focusing on the other person's. It's viewing a situation from their perspective. When we revisit the example of a person crying, being empathetic is understanding that the person is sad and then acting accordingly.
Being empathetic is understanding why that person is sad, identifying where the emotions are coming from, and then internalizing their feelings as our own. That way we can truly walk in their shoes. Empathy is not an opportunity to make the situation about you by storytelling or educating. And here's what I mean. We often try to either celebrate people's achievements or comfort them during their failures by talking about similar situations that we've experienced.
What does this sound like? Here's an example. Congratulations on the promotion. When I was promoted last year, I took it as an opportunity to... Here's another example. I completely understand how you feel. When I was trying to find a job after my lay-off... So, these are common statements that most of us make with the best of intentions. The problem is that we are no longer invested in what the other person is thinking or feeling, and we've now made the entire exchange about ourselves.
We can relate to people without hijacking the conversation. When you're being empathetic towards another person, you're speaking to them in the way that they can best receive your message. I know how difficult it is to rewire these instincts, but removing yourself from the picture is the key to communicating with empathy. Now that you know what empathy is and is not, what are some times when you have experienced a failure of empathy, either by yourself or by someone else? After you've thought of a few examples, pinpoint exactly where that failure of empathy happened.
Once you know where you're going wrong in your quest to be more empathetic, you'll know where to begin to solve the problem.
- What is empathy?
- How to be empathetic at work
- Practicing positive communication
- Identifying communication styles
- Approaching difficult conversations
- Practicing empathy in groups