Empathy: The Four-Part Process of Empathy

Empathy really involves the simultaneous blending of at least four processes: (1) tuning in to your feelings, (2) expressing your feelings, (3) tuning in to other’s feelings, and (4) responding to those feelings with understanding.

Step 1: Tuning In To Your Own Feelings

Every person experiences a continuous flow of feelings: about himself, about how the conversation is going, about personal comfort or discomfort, about the other person. At times the various feelings are in conflict with each other. At times they affect the physical state of the individual. These feelings can act as a “screen” making him especially sensitive to hearing some feelings while making it most difficult for him to tune in to other feelings being expressed.

Step 2: Expressing Your Feelings

People are continuously sending out signals that are indications of the feeling occurring within them. At times we may attempt to express them directly. At other times we may attempt to “hold them in.” The expression can be verbal, through gesture, posture, or facial movements. Sometimes we express feelings clearly using understandable signs, at other times the expression may lead to misinterpretation and confusion. Congruence (consistency of expression) is essential for accurate communication of feelings.

Step 3: Tuning In To Other’s Feelings

Conversely, in a conversation with another, every person constantly receives signals indicating the feeling state of the other person. Even when the signals of the communication are consistent with each other and are accurate reflections of the other’s feeling state, the “listener” may not pay attention to the signals, or may pay selective attention (selective inattention) to only some of the signals. He may interpret the signals correctly or incorrectly.

Step 4: Responding To the Feelings with Understanding

When we hear the indication of feelings from another, we have a variety of response choices. We can choose to ignore the feelings, responding instead to something within ourselves or something external to both persons; we can attempt to minimize , change, or “solve” the feelings; or we can indicate that we understand and accept the feelings. Communication is most helpful (therapeutic, relationship building) when the feelings within both individuals are recognized, expressed, accurately “heard” and responded to with understanding and acceptance.

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