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EMPATHIC LISTENING – THE KEY TO CONNECTION

By: Mozelle Forman, Lcsw



One of the greatest human desires is to be understood by another. Empathy, the sincere understanding of the experience of another, may be one of the most powerful relationship tools we can develop. Carl Rogers, one of the founders of humanistic psychology and the creator of person-centered therapy, felt that empathy is “one of the most delicate and powerful ways we have of using ourselves.” Helen Riess, author of the new book The Empathy Effect, explains: “Empathy relies on specific parts of the brain that evolved to enable emotional connection with others and the motivation to care. Once empathy is activated, compassionate action is the most logical response.”

What is Empathy?

Let’s understand what empathy is (and what it isn’t) and learn how to cultivate this relationship enhancing skill.

Empathy is derived from the Greek word “pathos” – meaning suffering or feeling. Empathy is often confused with pity, sympathy, and compassion, which are reactions to the plight of others. Pity is a feeling of discomfort at the distress of someone, and often has paternalistic or condescending overtones.

Sympathy, also derived from the word pathos, is used to convey commiseration or feelings of sorrow for someone else who is experiencing misfortune. You feel bad for them – but you don’t know what it is like to be in their shoes. Sympathy is often accompanied by unasked for advice and platitudes like “it will be all right” and “why don’t you try this?” While this may be well meaning, it doesn’t truly help the person feel understood.

Empathy is distinct from the emotions of sympathy or pity as it focuses on getting on the same level as the troubled person, and, in a sense, feeling what that person is going through. We don’t feel sorry for them – we are feeling with them – we imagine what it must feel like for them to be in their situation. In other words, we listen to the other person. We might ask good questions as a way to understand them, and through answering them, the person might realize something about their situation that empowers them and helps them.

How to Offer Empathy

Really listen–Real listening involves being totally present, not thinking about anything else other than what the other is saying, and with no agenda other than making sure that you understood them clearly.

Non-empathic response: “That’s too bad. What’s for dinner?”

Empathic response: “Gosh, I am so sorry that happened.”

Drop the Advice– Speaking of advice – it’s the enemy of empathy. The second you start telling another person how to think and feel then you aren’t trying to understand them, but are trying to make yourself feel better. Empathy is not about you, it’s about the other.

Non-empathic response: “You just need to move on already.
I keep telling you that.”

Empathic response:“Tell me more.”

Recognize and Allow Emotions – Empathy means seeing another person’s emotions as best as we can and not trying to alleviate our own discomfort with their pain. This means letting someone cry instead of patting them on the back, saying “poor you,” or trying to distract them with endless tissues. And it means letting someone rant instead of telling them to calm down.

Non-empathic response: “Don’t let it get you that upset.
You shouldn’t feel that way.”

Empathic response:“That must have been embarrassing and uncomfortable. I imagine you feel frustrated and angry.”

Ask Powerful Questions– Sympathy often comes with advice. Empathy? Questions. A good question is one that empowers someone to find an answer that looks forward instead of getting caught up in self-analysis. Empathic listening means asking questions that help people express what’s really going on, and requires listening without judgment.

Non-empathic response:“What did you do wrong?”

Empathic response:“What do you think would help you feel better about it? What do you need? How can I help?”

Validate the Person’s Expression of Distress – We can’t be empathic if we are thinking about how we would handle a similar situation. Remember, empathy is about feeling with them –
their unique response to a set of stressors in their life. Empathy is about understanding, notanalyzing someone or judging their emotional responses.

Non-empathic response:“I wouldn’t care if that happened to me.I would just shake it off.”

Empathic response:“That was really uncool of them.
It is completely understandable that you are upset.
I know how hard you work and how invested you are.”