What it Really Takes to Be Empathetic

Most people think being empathetic means feeling the same thing that another person feels, or having sympathy for them, or agreeing with what they say, but actually, none of that is true. You can be empathetic towards someone and experience a completely different set of feelings from what that person is experiencing. You can feel bad for someone and have sympathy for them, but lack empathy for them. You can also have empathy for someone, but not agree with them at all. This is because being empathetic is less about feeling or agreeing and more about understanding. To be empathetic is to be truly with someone and fully understand their feelings and needs.

In fact, feeling the same things as another might actually hinder empathy from happening, because it could take you out of presence. Think about it this way, if someone starts sharing with you about a difficult situation in which they are feeling sad, frustrated, concerned, and overwhelmed, if you also start to experience all of the same feelings, it is unlikely that you will be able to have enough presence to really focus on what that person is sharing. Instead, you might start to think about your own experience of feeling sad, frustrated, concerned and overwhelmed – all feelings that arguably take up a lot of mental and emotional space in one’s mind and body, leaving little to no room for full presence and focus.

Additionally, you do not need to agree with someone’s sentiments in order to have empathy for them. For example, I talked to a teenager this week who is frustrated with their parent for not letting them stay out past midnight. I do not have to agree that they should have a later curfew, but I can still empathize with them.

So if feeling the same thing as someone else is not empathy, and agreeing with them is not empathy, then what is empathy? Empathy is the experience of truly being present with someone, mind, body and spirit, then being super clear about what that person is sharing, and finally, understanding the underlying universal human needs behind what the person is feeling – and doing all of this without judgment or blame.

In order to do this, you must have a few skills in your back pocket:

Presence. Again, being present with someone is crucial in giving them empathy. This means your body language is showing attention towards other – so facing the person, maintaining eye contact, keeping from engaging in other activities like shuffling papers or answering text messages; additionally, presence requires mind attention, too, not just physical attention. This means your thoughts do not wander to other things, and you are not distracted easily, or, preferably, at all.

Reflection. Reflection is the process of repeating back to someone what you heard them say.

This does not need to be a verbatim recitation, but rather, you hit the main points of what they say, being sure to repeat exact details that are pertinent to what they are sharing. This shows that you are truly listening and being present. Additionally, it allows you to gain clarity on what they are saying. If you start reflecting and you get something wrong, the other person is going to correct you, then giving you more clarity on the situation.

Guessing feelings and needs. This does not mean asking, “what are you feeling?” or “how does that make you feel?”. Guessing means taking an educated guess based off of the information that the person has already shared, either through words or body language. The reason for guessing rather than asking is again, showing that you actually were listening. Also, sometimes people don’t want to put mental energy into answering a question, so when you do ask, there is actually potential for disconnection, regardless of how well-intentioned the question is. Making a guess takes the pressure off of someone answering a question, and it generally doesn’t pull them from their train of thought, either, which is another danger to questioning.

It is also important to note that feelings are simply things that one can experience in the body, which is very different from thoughts. Additionally, needs are universal to all humans, and they are different from strategies, which are specified to individuals wants. Here is a great list of both feelings and needs compiled by John Kinyon.

This post really just gives the skivvy on what it means to be empathetic by providing a few key elements to the process of empathy. If you would like to take a deeper dive to really learn how to give true empathy, and then be able to practice doing so under the guidance of trained professionals, check out this course. It will help you to find connection with anyone, even in times of conflict.