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Practicing Empathy - It's Not About the Nail

When someone we care about is facing a challenge, our instinct may be to try to fix the perceived problem or make them feel better. A conversation where one person wants to communicate their feelings while the other is inclined to "right" the situation as quickly as possible may go something like this:

Empathy allows us to put ourselves in the other's shoes, understand and be sensitive to how they're feeling, and even understand what they are thinking or how they are viewing a situation. Brené Brown gives a helpful explanation of empathy and the difference between empathy and sympathy in this short talk:

How to Practice Empathy

Empathy comes more easily to some, but it’s possible to learn it even if you’re not the most naturally empathetic person. To learn empathy, try this exercise:

  1. Think about your significant other or a friend, family member, or coworker.

  2. What has their mood been like in recent days?

  3. What’s going on in this person’s life that might be making them happy or sad, anxious, or angry?

  4. How are you contributing?

  5. What could you do or say to improve this person’s situation?

Empathy–developed by regularly listening to another person’s thoughts and feelings–helps to build both closeness and respect. To know if you’re practicing empathy when talking to someone, keep this empathy checklist in mind:

  • Focus your attention on them when they’re talking. Don’t fidget or check your phone or gaze out the window.

  • Indicate that you’re listening by looking them in the eyes when they speak, nodding when you understand, and touching their hand or using another gesture to indicate your connection.

  • Show your respect by hearing them out without sarcasm or rejection. If you feel yourself getting angry or annoyed, ask to take a break. Get a glass of water and drink it slowly to give yourself time to mindfully re-center yourself.

  • Repeat what they say in your own words to make sure you’re hearing them correctly or ask questions if you’re not clear about their meaning.

  • Validate their emotions. Even if you don’t agree with an opinion, you can acknowledge the person’s right to their feelings.

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