The journey of healing ourselves and our relationships requires us to take advantage of some fundamental skills of Human interaction. Foremost of these is empathy. When we learn to bring empathy to the table, it becomes the catalyst for curiosity and connection. Through the power of empathy, love, connection, and healing become possible.
What is empathy?
Simply put, empathy is attunement to the emotions of the Other. There’s actually a lot to unpack there, so let’s dive in.
First, attunement. What is that? The formal definition tells us it means “to make aware or responsive” or “to bring into harmony.” In this instance, I think both are appropriate.
It’s important to recognize that it does not call us to feel what someone else is feeling. If we’re anxious or depressed just because we’re around someone else who is, that’s a blurred boundary and it’s often not a healthy thing.
Being aware and responsive to the feelings of another person means we can have this awareness without becoming emotional tofu, taking on the flavor of whatever it’s surrounded by.
How does empathy help?
Empathy takes a one person experience and brings it into the realm of social support and acceptance. When we attune to how another person feels, we don’t simply become aware. It’s a way of sharing their experience
When we experience empathy, it actually removes the demand that we help another person solve problems. “Fixing” isn’t the point (again, with the blurred boundaries!). With empathy, we experience the Other’s emotions with nonjudgmental observation.
Being with someone else in their time of big emotion without asking them to change that emotion is a fundamental form of acceptance. It’s like saying “I can tolerate you in your discomfort.” When we do this, we don’t just avoid rejecting them in their moment of deep emotion, we offer acceptance of them and their basic Humanity. It doesn’t get any more fundamental or important than that.
Empathy heals. It’s the Kryptonite of conflict. It takes us into that space of asking “What’s it like to be you right now?”
When we do this, it becomes a kind of relational judo. We exchange conflict and ego for curiosity and connection.
It empowers us to step around the force-meets-force moments and head straight for the marrow of any relationship: the shared emotions that connect us at a basic Human level.
Can I improve empathy?
I can’t emphasize this enough. Empathy is a skill. By definition, you can learn it and improve in your ability to offer it.
How do we improve empathy? Just like the musician who aspires to become a concert soloist, you practice. In fact, you don’t just practice, you make it a practice.
What’s the difference?
When you practice something, you work at that thing to develop the ability to do that. Practicing makes an activity a function of what you do. We can practice our empathy skills at any time just by trying to understand how someone else may feel in a given moment. Use your curiosity and imagination to practice whenever you like.
Having a practice isn’t a function of what you do. It’s a manifestation of who you are. When we accept responsibility for our actions in this way, we inculcate actions into our live that reflect our core values.
Empathy involves asking important questions. Here are some good examples:
- “What feels big or important to you?”
- “What do you want me to know about you?”
- “What’s your takeaway from what happened?”
- “How can I support you through this?”
Anything that connects you to the experiences the Other, whether it’s asking questions of just being with someone, counts as empathy.
If you want even more information on this, be sure to check out our podcast episode: How to go NEXT LEVEL with empathy.
Will empathy help me have more compassion in relationships?
Yes, it can. If you want to practice compassion with your friends, family, and romantic relationships, you’ll need to have empathy. This is where it all begins.
So, what’s the difference between empathy and compassion? Compassion is the awareness of suffering and the desire to alleviate it. How we alleviate it becomes a matter of some discussion. While it’s not our place to be responsible for Others’ emotions, there are ways that holding space for someone else can provide important Human connection that helps heal us.
Compassionate love is one of the most basic ways to connect with anyone, possibly even more profoundly that romantic love. The love of compassion is when we hold space for someone else, no matter how they are. When we are able to be with someone at their worst, we say to them “I see you. I accept you no matter what.”
What are your favorite ways to show empathy and compassion? Do you have any special perspectives to offer? You can connect with us on Instagram to comment on our posts and share your perspective. We hope to find you there!