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Learning empathy

Neil Rosenthal

Imagine the following scenario: Someone close to you gets in an accident and winds up with a broken nose. Her nose healed, but she remains fearful of being seen in public. She says her nose doesn’t look right, and she doesn’t want anyone to see her, so she stays home virtually all the time. You’re in the position of encouraging her to get out of the house and resume her normal life. Which of the following comes closest to how you would handle the situation: (A) “Your nose is fine. This fear you have is all in your head.” (B) “I’m going to go out, and if you want to stay home and feel sorry for yourself, you can just be miserable for as long as you want.” (C) “I see that you feel people will be critical and judgmental of your appearance, and I might feel the same way if what happened to you had happened to me. This must feel terrible, and I can identify with how disempowered you must feel. Tell me more about these feelings.”There is no universally correct answer to the above question. But the answer that is most likely to work with the most people is (C), because (C) is the only answer that employs empathy-attempting to understand the feelings, motivations and fears of the other person.Empathy is a skill, and few people are really good at it. It requires us to step into another’s shoes and imagine what it must feel like to be in his/her position. It invites us to enter into the other person’s feelings as if those feelings are ours. Empathy is not the same as sympathy. I feel sympathy for you when something bad happens to you. I feel empathy when I feel with you, by inquiring about what you’re feeling or experiencing with a genuine, non-judgmental desire to understand your feelings. To have empathy does not mean that if you’re angry at someone, I will be also. It just means that I can understand and have compassion for what you’re feeling, even if I don’t have those feelings myself, and even if I disagree with you. Empathy is a healing emotion, because when people feel heard and understood, they also feel validated, which will helps them to feel better. They’ll suddenly feel like they’re not all alone. Empathy consists of (1) finding the truth in what the other person says, (2) paraphrasing the other person’s words to make sure you understand his/her feelings accurately, (3) acknowledging what it must feel like to be in his/her position, and (4) to have a willingness to take yourself-your thoughts, feelings and judgments-out of the mix and just be there with the other person. If you don’t temporarily suspend your own feelings and opinions, you’re not being empathetic. If you tell me, for example, that you’re upset at your boss, it doesn’t help for me to tell you how upset I am at my boss, or even how upset I am at your boss. If I do that, my emotions are about my feelings, not about your feelings.Author Harville Hendrix offers the following exercise if you’re interested in learning and/or getting better at a communication process that assists you in being empathetic:Sender: Sends messageReceiver: “If I understand you, you’re feeling…”Sender: Confirms reception, or rephrases message if not received accuratelyReceiver: “Is there more about that?” When message is complete and accurately mirrored, Receiver summarizes: “Let me see if I got it all….”Sender: Confirms the accuracy of the whole message.Receiver expresses validation: “You make sense because …,” or “I can understand why you feel this way because …”Receiver then expresses empathy: “I can imagine that you feel __________,” or “I think I might feel the same way you do if what happened to you happened to me,” or “I can see that you’re hurt. That must feel terrible. I really feel for you.”Sender: Confirms the accuracy of the mirrored feelings.Neil Rosenthal is a licensed marriage and family therapist in Denver and Boulder, Colorado, specializing in how people strengthen their intimate relationships. He can be reached at (303) 758-8777, or e-mail him from his website http://www.heartrelationships.com


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