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Empathy- the fundamental aspect of all relationship work

As a professional development consultant teaching in topics around responding to difficult or challenging behaviour in others, I find that the ‘light bulb moment’ for most participants is the point at which they realise the difference empathy can make.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary[1] defines empathy as:

The action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another in either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.

In the role of working to establish therapeutic and/or supportive relationships especially at times when clients are experiencing distress our response to their distress and the behaviour that arises from it is critical.

Too often we find ourselves becoming annoyed or defensive in the face of that behaviour and the relationship becomes difficult.

But it is difficult isn’t it?

How can you feel empathy towards a person you might not necessarily agree with? What if what they are saying or how they are behaving is totally anthemic to all you believe in and value to the point where you feel your ‘buttons being pushed” – you will hear me talk about this in depth at some of our de-escalation and mental health workshops.

When our ‘buttons are pushed’ in this way, we often end up acting on the feeling that arises for us at this time and miss the message that is being relayed by the person with the original distress. I’ll come back to how we can manage our feelings a bit later but right now I want to talk about how we can express empathy even when we feel annoyed.

So, what is empathy?

First and very importantly its necessary to understand that empathy is not sympathy. I love Brené Brown’s little clip on this topic here[2]

Empathy is a sense of trying to understand or imagine the depth of another’s emotional state or situation without necessarily trying the experience what they are experiencing. Essentially, we can define it as “the ability to identify or understand another’s emotions, situation or feelings”. Feeling with rather that feeling sorry for. Empathy requires that we seek to understand another’s perspective. For example, “having experienced the loss of a job myself I have empathy for what you are going through”. Putting yourself in someone’s shoes in order to understand the persons situation and how it is impacting them. Empathy is more focused around personally identifying with or projecting oneself into another’s situation.

Essentially when we are sympathetic, we are expressing pity, feeling sorry for the person.

Sympathy however is more clearly defined as, “a feeling of pity or sorrow for the distress of another.” It’s about compassion and sorrow one feels for another. For example, “I feel sympathy for the grieving family”.

Here’s a simple trick to remember the difference.

You can remember that sympathy deals with sorrows and feeling sorry for someone because it starts with an “S.”

Similarly, you can remember that empathy is more personal and requires you to put yourself in that person’s shoes. Shoes and empathy both have an “E” in them[3].

Why is empathy difficult for some people?

There are a number of things that get in the way of experiencing the power of empathy. Three of the main ones, which are all interrelated, are 1) that we may feel threatened based on our own previous experiences and therefore are reluctant to make ourselves vulnerable in supporting another; 2) we are being judgemental and potentially forming value judgements, we decide that we are right and the other person is wrong, in this space we diminish our capacity to be judgemental and 3) and thirdly Fear;  to actually visit the situation we become defensive to what we are seeing and it then becomes difficult to express empathy[4]

The reason why empathy is so important in relationship work with vulnerable others is that it helps us better understand how others are feeling, and even feel it in ourselves. It helps us maintain relationships and plays a role in dictating our success in both personal and professional relationships. I always say at the point we move from being defensive to another’s’ behaviour and move towards empathy the impact of their behaviour on us is lessened, it takes the ‘sting’ out of the behaviour.

A lack of empathy can also be a trait of personality disorders like narcissism or antisocial personality disorder. But hey that’s another discussion for another day.

However, some of us struggle to express empathy due to how developmental experiences. If we haven’t seen or heard compassion how do, we learn it?

So, how do we ensure we are being empathetic.

Those of you who have attended any of our de-escalation workshops will recall the context wheel where you are asked to consider the lifeworld of the individual you are supporting. When  we look at various difficult or challenging behaviours and put some life world contextual aspects over these we can then move to a place of empathy. It helps us imagine why a behaviour might be happening in a particular context.

To give an example of this I recall a workshop I did with some security staff at a Casino. The staffs’ hardest job was managing the angry punters who refuse to leave or who argue or cause some other type of disturbance. By overlaying the possible contextual factors to the behaviour, the security staff identified that this most often happens when the person has lost all of the money or gambled far beyond what they should have. In asking them to think about how that might feel for the punter the staff paused and become thoughtful – the ‘lightbulbs went on’ and the common response was “oh yeah that must feel like crap” From that space then we explored how they might approach the angry punter differently. Instead of “you need to stop yelling and leave” they changed their dialogue to “hey mate I’m sure you are feeling pretty distressed about this, lets….”

Can you see how just that brief acknowledgement of feelings shows empathy? Just imagine ‘What It’s Like for Them’.

While it can sometimes be difficult for us to “understand” another person’s perspective or situation, being able to imagine what it must be like for them is that essential aspect of empathy.

The more willing we are to imagine what it’s like for them, the more compassion, understanding, and empathy we’ll be able to experience.

Your self-reflection

So, the next time you are confronted with a behaviour that you don’t understand or that ‘pushes your buttons’, challenge your defensive response, and think context – this then helps you express empathy and believe it or not you actually feel better and less triggered. Ask yourself:

  1. How empathetic are you really?
  2. What can you do to enhance your capacity for empathy?
  3. What are the barriers (e.g., feeling threatened, being judgmental, and experiencing fear ) you have personally in regard to others behaviour that limit your ability to express empathy?
  4. How would an increased ability to empathise with others (and yourself) impact your work?

[1] https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/empathy

[2] Diana Simon Psihoterapeut.(2016, April 01). Brené Brown on Empathy vs Sympathy [YouTube]. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KZBTYViDPlQ&feature=emb_logo

[3] Empathy vs. Sympathy: What’s the Difference? – Writing Explained

[4] https://mike-robbins.com/podcasts/

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