When a loved one seeks the comfort of your shoulders, of your ears while going through a rough patch in her life, do you instantly shoot what-has-worked-for-me solutions at her? Or do you compare her situation to that of someone who has lesser blessings to count on (“Oh, you found your husband cheating on you? Well, at least you have a husband. Think of those who do not!”)? Or do you instantly change the topic because you think this might help take her mind off the matter? Well, you might have the best of intentions but you seem to be suffering from a lack of empathy.
Brené Brown , an American research professor at the University of Houston, has spent two decades studying empathy using grounded theory research method. She finds the following to be the four attributes of empathy (based on the findings of nursing scholar, Theresa Wiseman) –
- Perspective Taking refers to seeing the world as others see it, to taking off your glasses and putting on theirs.
- Being Non-Judgemental means avoiding comments that might make someone feel that her emotion should not be existing in the first place, that it’s wrong or invalid.
- Recognising Emotion indicates turning inwards and identifying that feeling the other person could be feeling. You could check with her what you’ve understood so far. For example, you could say, “Sounds like you are feeling rejected.”
- Communication i s all about letting the other person know that you understand their emotion and that you respect what they are feeling. Instead of saying, “At least you…” or “It could be worse…” try, “I’ve been there, and that really hurts,” or (to quote an example from Brené) “It sounds like you are in a hard place now. Tell me more about it.”
Now you might be wondering about sympathy and how to distinguish it from empathy. Well, empathy is “I am feeling with you” & sympathy is “I am feeling for you.” Empathy is a vulnerable choice you make, to tune yourself to someone else’s emotions, to look inside yourself (often at your uncomfortable corners) in order to understand what the other must be going through. After all, I cannot empathise with your anguish if I don’t understand and respect mine. Sympathy, on the other hand, is running away from someone else’s pain; always standing ready with a fire-extinguisher ready to put down the flames of pain, without wanting to acknowledge it one bit. To put it simply – empathy fuels connection while sympathy drives it away.
Often when someone asks for your shoulder to rest on, they are not seeking a solution. They are just looking for someone who’ll let them know that it’s okay to not be okay , sometimes. And that they are not alone in feeling a certain way. And that’s what empathy is all about!