Empathy: Developing Empathy for Building Relationships and Helping Others

Empathy is a Powerful Resource for Building Relationships and Helping Others
Many people hear of a friend’s trouble and wish to “fix the problem”. We are uncomfortable with their pain and struggle because it reminds us of our own. We find it difficult to “just” listen, understand and acknowledge the difficult feelings, but often that is exactly what is needed most.
Being empathetic with another person helps create a safe space for them to work through their feelings without fear of judgement, without having to defend why they feel a certain way. This space is also where trust, confidence and hope can grow. Being present with your friend in this way also provides them a space to use their energy for finding their own creative solutions for their own problems. Knowing that your friend will be there to identify with your feelings, listen to your thoughts, hopes, fears and insecurities, and to wait with you while you figure out your best path for your life in that time and place, is a wonderful gift.

  • Listen for their Feelings – As you listen to the person, watch for all the cues that indicate what he is feeling verbal and non-verbal. Don’t give in to the fact-finding urge. Tune in to the feelings.
  •  Acknowledge their Feelings – Respond to “feeling” expressions by identifying what you see and hear (e.g., use the feedback model) to determine you are listening with concern, and really “hearing” his feelings.
  • Clarify the Feelings – If you don’t understand precisely, ask. If you are confused or unsure about what the person is trying to express ask for clarification. Take nothing for granted. Phrases like these are helpful when seeking clarification:
    • “Is your feeling something like?”
    • “Can you give me an example?”
    • “Could you tell me more about this?”
    • “I’m not sure I understand what you meant.”
    • “Are you saying ___?”
  • Check the Feelings – Make sure you are hearing accurately by checking back periodically with the person. One of the best ways to validate your understanding of what he is saying is by paraphrasing, repeating what he has said using your own words. You can lead into the paraphrase by saying:
    • “If I understand you right, what you are saying is _______.”
    • “Let’s see if I understand. What you’re saying is ________.”

The first step, then, in helping another is to hear where he is. Hear his problem and his feelings. Listen to all cues for his feelings. Clarify anything you don’t understand. Acknowledge the feelings you hear. Check out what you think you understand.

Clarifying, acknowledging, and checking out the feelings you hear are the basic actions and skills, which need to be developed if you are going to become an effective helper.

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