The Power of Empathy

It’s a well-known fact that empathy can have a transformative effect in relationships, whether they are work, personal or parental. What’s less well understood is how to actually ‘be’ empathic, especially in a world that often demands a quick fix and a definable solution.

Two elephants with their heads close together
Being empathic is a real skill that can deliver positive results for all

The psychologist Carl Rogers first identified empathy as one of the essential ingredients in relationships that promote effectiveness and growth. His ideas have since been applied in the fields of teaching, leadership, counselling, crisis mediation and many other areas. So how does empathy actually work?

‘Be’ first, do later

You’ve probably heard of active listening. Maybe you’ve tried it yourself, and felt self-conscious and a little bit foolish, and worried that you weren’t actually ‘doing’ anything helpful. In fact, far from being passive, empathy is a very active attitude. Its transformative power lies in:

  • Making the person feel genuinely understood
  • Clarifying the problem
  • Making space for a solution
  • Enabling fresh insights
  • Creating shared solutions between you

You might be surprised how quickly a simple empathic response can lead to a wealth of new understanding and insight – after which the solution to the problem is often not far away. So how do you convey empathy? It’s time for…

The empathic following response

Another common misunderstanding about empathy is that it involves simply parroting or summarising what someone has said. In fact, to better understand what empathy is, it’s worth pointing out what it isn’t.

It’s not:

  • Parroting and repetition
  • Summarising
  • A cliched pretence at understanding (‘That must be awful for you, how sad’)
  • Sitting and nodding like a loon

The empathic following response is a way of responding to what you’ve heard that is personal to you, conveys a deep level of understanding (the ‘music behind the words’), and (often) moves the conversation forward. Using metaphors is a good example:

  • Statement: ‘I have so much work I’m just overwhelmed by the pressure’.
  • Empathic following response: ‘You feel like you’re drowning and haven’t been able to come up for air’.

This response shows:

  • Understanding.
  • A new insight into the problem.
  • Could lead to shared ideas of what ‘coming up for air’ might mean, and how to get there.

It’s important to avoid ‘zero sum’ responding. For example, if someone says:

Statement: ‘I admire my colleague’s talent but her prima donna attitude is destroying my own confidence.’

Your response would be ‘zero sum’ if you said something like ‘it’s a difficult situation.’ A response like that would effectively shut the conversation down. An empathic following response would acknowledge both parts of the statement:

Empathic following response: ‘She’s really getting to you, though there are things you do respect about her.’

Such a response could open the way for solutions which still acknowledge what is good about the colleague.

So next time you’ve hit an impasse with someone, be it a child, partner or someone you manage, try a dose of empathy. You might be surprised at how quickly the problem resolves — and how much closer you’ve become along the way.