How do you show empathy? Are you like Oscar the Grouch, growling from your trash can, or are you like Big Bird, always caring about and understanding with others?
Empathy is a component of emotional intelligence (EQ). Empathy means you are able to pick up on what others are feeling. You recognize someone’s pain or joy and you can relate to that.
Sympathy means you recognize what someone else is experiencing. Period.
Watch this delightful 2:40 video that depicts the difference between empathy and sympathy.
“I’m so sorry for your loss.” That’s what we say when someone loses a loved one.
We recently lost my mom. Mom was 89 and had had Alzheimer’s for at least 12 years. She was happy and talked and sang all the time. None of it made sense to us in the later years, but we were happy she was happy.
At the memorial service, people said, “I’m so sorry for your loss.” That’s what our friends said. That is sympathy.
Empathy showed in the comment a dear friend made. “Pam, I’m so sorry. You were a great daughter to her.” Cathy knew what we’d been through, because she’d lost both of her parents to Alzheimer’s. She knew what we felt and experienced.
Why you should work on empathy
Why do you need to get better at empathy? Being able to recognize and relate to others’ feelings is critical for developing meaningful relationships and becoming a leader. Empathy also
- enhances your communication with others
- improves productivity
- reduces the likelihood of conflict
Try out these five ways of building empathy. See which one works for you.
1. Practice paying attention
In today’s fast-paced world, we seldom allow ourselves time to observe what’s going on around us. To build your empathy muscles, go to a park or somewhere else where you can just sit and watch others. You need to improve your people-watching skills before you take on any of the other suggestions that follow.
Turn off your phone and observe the people and what they are doing.
See that man and little boy playing ball? Are they smiling and laughing or does the man keep checking his watch like he wants or needs to be somewhere else?
How about that woman on a blanket with two children? They may be her own children or she may be a nanny. Can you tell by watching the interaction between them? Are all three of them having fun together or are they doing things separately?
What emotions do you observe? Can you relate to what you see? Does this experience remind you of playing ball with a relative or of having a picnic with friends? Try to connect what you observe to experiences you’ve had. This will help you make an emotional connection to what you’re observing.
2. Practice active listening
“Listen” means to pay attention to sound and to hear something with thoughtful attention. In my mind, “active listening” should be redundant, but it’s not because so few people really listen. Therefore, we have active listening, which you need to become good at.
Active listening means you
- Look at the person speaking
- Observe the person’s body language and facial movements
- Show understanding by saying, “If I heard you correctly, you said (summarize what was said).”
- Ask relevant and probing questions to learn more
One executive I coached had a great approach to this with his employees. If someone came into his office to talk about a situation, Doug would say, “Give me a minute to finish what I’m typing/reading/whatever. Then I can give you my full attention.”
He would finish then turn and give that employee 100% of his attention. How do you think that made the employee feel? Valued, I’m sure.
Think of a time when your boss or significant other paid 100% attention to you. How did that make you feel? Active listening will help you do that for others, which is showing empathy.
3. Share your stories
We all have stories about times when things haven’t gone as we had planned or wanted. Those stories can help you show empathy for another person’s situation, if shared correctly.
For example, John is venting about a customer who is driving John nuts by constantly changing orders at the last minute. Raj, John’s co-worker, knows what John’s feeling because Raj has experienced similar problems with one of his clients.
Raj says, “I get where you’re coming from, John. I had a client who pulled the same thing with me. Maybe the solution I came up with would work for you.” Raj is showing empathy for John.
It would not be empathy if Raj phrased it like this: “You think that guy’s bad—let me tell you about the client that drove me nuts.” That is one-upping the other person, not showing empathy.
If you are a supervisor and have a staffer who is struggling to learn a particular skill, think back to when you were younger and what you had to struggle with. Share that story with your staffer as a way of pointing out we all face hurdles at times. That’s empathy.
4. Shadow someone for a day
You’ve heard the expression “walk a mile in someone’s shoes,” right? You can actually do that by shadowing someone for a day. A smart high school student shadows a professional in a field the student is interested in. One student I know thought she wanted to be a doctor until she shadowed a doctor for a day. That changed her plans.
Have new employees shadow another employee for a day or more to learn the job and understand what situations come up.
If you have an employee who is struggling, shadow that employee to see how he/she is functioning at work. You may spot a problem the employee is struggling with that you have an easy solution for. Better yet, you may have experienced a similar problem earlier in your career and found a solution. Share that story with your employee.
5. Interview others to learn about them
Follow the example set by Boaz Rauchwerger, a phenomenal international speaker, in the video above. Boaz has five questions he asks people he runs into. And he interviews everybody—stature doesn’t matter.
These five questions empower you to start a conversation with a stranger without feeling odd about it. They even work for those introverts who resist talking to anyone outside their own family.
- Where are you from originally?
- What brought you here?
- Do you have a family?
- What do you do?
- What did you want to be when you were growing up?
I have taught these questions to hundreds of people in workshops and at conferences. In one workshop, two strangers paired up and asked these question of each other. It turned out they grew up a couple blocks from each other in a small Indiana town. They had never met but they did have friends in common. Small world.
In order to empathize with someone, you need to know something about the person. Boaz’s questions will help you do that.
Check out these resources
The Savvy Psychologist offers her thoughts on empathy.
More ideas from Fast Company.
Teach your kids about empathy.
Think about my original question: How do you show empathy? It’s a skill you can develop that will benefit you and the people you encounter in life.
Feature photo courtesy of the Red Cross
© Pamela A. Scott, MentorLoft.com, 2017