Approaches to Empathy

 

All of us, at one point or another in our lives, will experience the emotions of empathy, whether it is giving or receiving.  It does not matter if you are in the helping relationships profession or not, the need for human empathy exists everywhere – work, home, school, and among friends and family.  Sometimes we do not know when we are giving or receiving it, because it is a word that has been mistaken for sympathy.  Although they are not the same things, people sometimes get them mixed up.  So, let us define them and separate them.

  • Empathy is the ability to first understand and to feel what another person is experiencing from their perspective. That is, to put yourself into another’s shoe (position).

 

  • Sympathy is a common feeling of pity or sorrow for someone else’s misfortune or loss.

There is a big difference between sympathy and empathy. The emphasis of this article is on empathy, so let’s stay focused. Learning empathy is a skill and a trait, which when used correctly helps to more accurately understand what others are feeling, even if we do not share those feelings. Expressing empathy becomes very useful in counseling sessions, conflict resolution, supporting others through a difficult period or stressed moments, improving another’s moods, and building a bond.

Types of Empathy

According to helping professionals, there are three types of empathy:

  1. Cognitive – this empathy allows you to see from another’s’ perspective. It does so without essentially engaging in the ‘feelings’ emotions, but rather by thought. This is useful for managers who can share their emotions but are required to be logical and rational.
  2. Emotional – this is as indicated in the definition provided above, and helps us have an insight into the other’s feelings.
  3. Compassionate – this empathy allows you to have concern for others, and seek to alleviate the problem. This type is a combination of the cognitive and emotional for the ideal type of empathy that people appreciate since it involves all three.  Because having compassion is similar to sympathy, it has often caused confusion between sympathy and empathy (Rogers, 2020).

How to Show Empathy

You have heard the saying, “people do not care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Well! It is an ideal essence towards showing empathy.  Learn to be more empathetic by following the below pointers.

  • Acknowledge how the person feels. It says you understand.
  • Articulate gratitude that the person felt comfortable to open up to you. This will show authenticity and help to strengthen a bond
  • Express interest in hearing more about the challenge. Be focused and active in your listening.
  • Share your experience. Just do not make the story become about you.
  • Be supportive and encouraging. Do not judge or formulate your own opinions.  Just show that you care and offer tangible help (for example, cut their lawn).

 

Tips for What to Say

When we truly connect with the hurt and the difficulties that others are going through, it is not hard to know what to do.  Notice DO!  Often clichés (such as, “everything will sort itself out”) are used to convey empathy, while well intended, they are not helpful.

 

Sometimes people who are giving empathy believe that they must fill every silent moment with words.  It is ok to listen and be silent.  Depending on the relationship, sometimes it is good to just hug or touch the hand of the person.  Still, we are creatures of habit, and we love to talk.

 

Here are some meaningful things to say as you learn to become empathetic:

“I am so sorry this happened to you”

“I hate that you are going through this”

“Wow! That must be hard”

“I don’t know what to say”

“It is hard for me to imagine what you are experiencing”

“I am glad you told me”

“Is there anything else you want to share?”

“I want to make sure that I understand …”

“You are so brave”

“I got you”

“Is there anything you need right now?”(Click, 2017)

 

Is there a Downside to Empathy?

YES!  Even though we have discussed, the good side of empathy, for balance, please note that there is a ‘flip’ or bad side.  Of note, particularly for persons in the helping relationships, youth advisors, and friends who have a knack of being called upon for help/advice may become overwhelmed with the emotions being exchanged and could have emotional overload, or burnout.  As a consequence, people who are giving empathy must ensure that they self-regulate and better examine their emotions.