Harnessing Empathy To Show True Compassion

Harnessing empathy to show true compassion

The rewards of learning to be empathic are extraordinary. At a cultural level, empathy is critical to fostering kindness, compassion, non-violence and happiness. At an individual level, empathy is essential to happiness.

You might consider yourself a compassionate person who exercises your empathic skills all the time. When your friend shares a problem, you tell them you understand, and nod in reassurance. I mean how hard can it be? A lot harder than you think.

I can think of at least two good personal friends who are caring, kind, compassionate people. Yet on rare occasions they have shown no understanding of an issue I’m sharing or my feelings surrounding it. In therapy this is called an “empathic failure”. Genuine empathy requires effective active listening, and this can be hard work. It really is an “active” not a passive process; you are not just hearing someone, you are deeply listening to their pain or the underlying feelings when they are sharing, and you are able to reflect those feelings accurately back to them even when they may not have directly stated them. When two people can share at this level, almost any conflict can be resolved.

Just as empathic listening is the cornerstone of any personal relationship, it also the cornerstone of any a good therapy relationship. Research suggests that the relationship with the therapist, regardless of the type of therapy used, is what accounts for much and maybe most of the change from therapy. So, if you’re choosing a therapist, choose one who makes you feel heard. In fact, true empathy can be so transformative that American psychologist Carl Rogers helped found an entire school of humanistic psychology which placed empathic listening — making the client feel deeply heard and understood with “unconditional positive regard” — as the central driving force for healing. This skill subsequently became considered essential across all schools of psychotherapy.

When empathic listening is done properly it can even help save a person’s life. Central to Lifeline Australia’s training for telephone counsellors is learning the skill of empathic listening. I experienced the power of this skill first-hand when after six months of training in empathic listening on my very first shift I had a caller who wanted to take their own life. In applying the skills I’d learned, the caller thankfully was able to feel so heard, understood and accepted that the intensity of their negative emotions decreased. When you validate someone’s feelings, the intensity of their emotions usually decreases because they feel understood; that is one of the main benefits of empathy. Empathic listening also helped this telephone client process their situation and see it more clearly. As a result, they realised they had other options to suicide.

But being empathic doesn’t just help others, it can also help the empathic person. Psychology Today outlines research which suggests learning to be empathic helps us regulate our emotions which in turn helps us relate to others in positive ways. It can help us handle difficult work situations which in turn can help prevent burnout, and it promotes moral conduct which benefits us all as a society.

Teaching empathy

So, if empathy is such a great skill can we learn it or must we accept the lot we are born with? And are we born with it at all? The answer is yes, research suggests we are born with some empathy and yes, empathy can be learned. For instance, newborns are more likely to cry if another baby is crying and infants start showing concern for family members between the ages of one and two. Also, various studies strongly suggest we teach children empathy by how we parent them.

Findings include the following:

  • Children with secure attachments — that is children who have parents who are sensitive and responsive — show greater empathy, a greater ability to cope with difficult feelings and greater sense of morality.
  • When parents explain the reasons for rules and explain the logical consequences of poor behaviour kids show more empathy and more remorse for misbehaviour.
  • Children who are taught to discuss their feelings in a sympathetic and constructive problem-solving manner also turn out to be friendlier and more empathic, while children with parents who minimise their feelings have less socially competent children.

What if, as an adult, you still struggle with showing empathy? Or you’d like to build on it? Learning to be more empathic is certainly possible. I recall a counselling student I was teaching empathic listening skills to many years ago. She found the entire process of listening to classmates’ problems in role plays tedious, boring and a complete waste of time. She said she didn’t understand why empathy was so important. Six weeks into the course after a role play, she paused, turned to me, smiled and said, “I really get it now.” She had finally experienced what it was like to really listen. She was able to feel into what her classmate was experiencing and reflect back their feelings and content with accuracy, genuine warmth and acceptance, and they responded accordingly, agreeing with her reflection, and their mood lifted at finally feeling understood.

Can you imagine the difference this kind of listening could make between a husband and wife, a mother and a child, two friends, a manager and their employee, or a political leader and the citizens of their country? I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that if everyone learned this skill, it could help change the world. In fact, if there is just one skill in life you learn, learn empathy. But first, learn how you block it. Some common ways people block empathy are listed below.

Blocks to empathy

  • Don’t judge. Try and show what psychologist Carl Rogers called “unconditional positive regard”. The moment you judge or criticise the person they will shut down and no longer share with you.
  • Don’t give advice or problem-solve. Unless someone asks for advice don’t give it. Many well-meaning people make the mistake of trying to solve the other person’s problem. When someone shares a problem they usually just want to be heard and understood, not told what to do. Unconsciously they are just needing to process their feelings and situation and this processing can help it become clearer. In this way empathic listening helps them feel validated and clarifies their issue. It’s extraordinary how people intuitively find their own solutions to problems when they feel understood. Furthermore, your advice might be wrong.
  • Don’t diagnose, interpret or analyse. Putting your interpretation or analysis on someone’s problem doesn’t make them feel understood and heard, and you may be wrong in your interpretation anyway.
  • Don’t minimise or dismiss. Comments like “Hey, it’s not that bad, at least …” or “Look on the bright side …” These statements only make the person feel invalidated, dismissed and definitely not heard.
  • Don’t reassure. Similarly, statements like “You’ll be fine”, “Don’t worry” or “It could be a lot worse” are also invalidating and just send the message you don’t really understand how a person feels.
  • Get out of your head. Some people tend to be very analytical and find it hard to connect with their own feelings. As such they respond to others in a detached analytical manner that can lack warmth. Empathy is not just about what you say, it’s how you say something. Their own unresolved feelings may also make it uncomfortable to listen to others’ feelings. But someone sharing their problem will feel the warmth of your intention. If it’s not there they won’t open up. If you find it hard to connect to your own feelings it may be something you want to explore further with a counsellor.
  • Be aware of your own biases and values. For example, if someone came to talk to you about an affair and you were against extra-marital relations, could you show empathy for them? Or what if someone expressed racist views and then went on to share their problem? Would this affect your ability to listen to them? We all, including counsellors, have values and biases which affect our ability to listen empathically. What’s important is that we are aware of them and, if we can, put them to one side in order to listen to a problem.
  • On a broader level, research using MRI brain scans reveals that media violence not only blunts our response to physical pain but reduces our ability to feel empathy for others’ pain, so if you’re watching a lot of violent media you might choose to decrease it.

Practising empathy

How do you learn empathy? Here are two techniques which are a good place to start.

Practise reflecting feelings and content

Do this with warmth. Really listen with your heart to the other person’s feelings. It isn’t as easy as it looks and takes practice. Be aware of your body language — nods of the head and murmurs of encouragement can also help the person feel heard. They need signs to know you are listening.

Take the following examples of empathic responding where the listener accurately reflects feelings and content:

Anne: “I had a huge fight with my husband last night. He’s been in so much pain since the accident, and nothing helps, he just gets more and more angry, taking it out on me and the kids and I don’t know what to do! Then I found out I lost my job yesterday and can’t bear to tell him.”
Reflection: “That’s overwhelming, Anne. It sounds like you feel so helpless and frustrated with your husband’s situation and now you’re having to deal with sharing some horrible news and you’re so worried about how he’s going to react.”
Dave: “I’ve been always there for Jean, devoted 30 years of married life to her. Yesterday I saw her having lunch with another man. I even saw them kiss. After everything I’ve done for her, she’s been lying! Behind my back. It was disgusting!”
Reflection: “What a shock. You sound furious, Dave. You must feel so betrayed and let down after everything you feel you’ve done for her.”

The empty chair technique

If someone has really upset or angered you, the following technique engages your imagination to help you get a sense of what it is like to experience the situation from their perspective. You still might disagree with them, but this technique might help you understand where they are at.

First imagine the person sitting in an empty chair opposite you — let’s call her Megan. Now express everything you want to say to Megan, how she has made you feel, all your pent-up feelings; don’t hold anything back.

When you’re finished go and sit in the empty chair. Imagine you are Megan and really breathe into the sense of who she is and imagine she has just heard everything you just said to her. How is she feeling? How would she respond? Would she cry, be enraged and attack, or be understanding?

No matter what Megan’s response is, what can be interesting is how it feels to feel and see the situation from her perspective. Even if you still don’t agree with her or dislike her it can be enlightening to get a sense of her experience of you and the world and to view the world through her defences.

Another way to build empathy in a broader sense is to be curious and find out more about someone you find yourself judging by talking to them or educating yourself about their situation. Famous author George Orwell did this in the 1920s when he returned to Britain wanting to know what life was like for the poor living on the margins of society. He dressed as a homeless man and lived on the streets of London with beggars and criminals. It radically changed his beliefs and values as he realised homeless people are not “drunken scoundrels”. He recorded his insights in his book Down and Out in Paris and London.

Such an approach as Orwell’s may seem extreme, but trying to understand the viewpoint of the people we judge seems especially important in today’s world. Research suggests empathy levels are falling in Australia and the US, and left-wing and right-wing views appear to be becoming more polarised, extreme and rigid. Take topics such as Trump’s “building the wall to keep out Mexicans” versus letting them in, or climate change verses climate deniers. In such a polarised climate it’s particularly important that we listen to and try and understand each other, because even if we still strongly disagree, we might at least gain some insight into what motivates another’s point of view. As past US president Barack Obama said, “Learning to stand in somebody else’s shoes, to see through their eyes, that’s how peace begins. And it’s up to you to make that happen … Empathy is a quality of character that can change the world.”

Sonia Zadro

Sonia Zadro

Sonia Zadro is a clinical psychologist with 20 years’ experience and a freelance writer. She is interested in helping people heal and opening their minds through science.

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