Updated: Sep 28, 2022
Listening with empathy builds trust, reduces anxiety, and restores dignity.
This is one of the principles of Naomi Feil’s Validation method of communicating with older people who have memory loss, but listening with empathy is important with everyone we communicate with.
Using an attitude of empathy, is one of the main pillars of The Validation method. By clearing our own thoughts and emotions, we can learn to feel what another person is feeling and, in this way, connect at a deeper level.
Sympathy vs Empathy
What is the difference between Sympathy and Empathy?
Sympathy is feeling sorry for a person’s situation.
Empathy is feeling what another person is feeling.
When we feel sorry for someone, we don’t need to enter their world. We can identify the other person’s pain and acknowledge it, but we do not feel it ourselves.
To empathize with another person, we must step into their shoes and feel what they are feeling at that moment. We need to be willing to connect to a situation, perhaps in our own past, when we felt something similar so that we can identify with what the other person is feeling. To empathize, we must be willing to step into another person’s world for a few moments and feel what they are feeling.
What Isn’t Empathy When I explain what empathy is, I often find it useful to show what isn’t empathy as a way of understanding the differences. I have recently been using this example:
A close friend of mine worked as a pastry chef in a bakery and would drive to work at 4:30 AM to begin work at dawn. She drove the same way every day. One afternoon she needed to drive to the bakery mid-day. She had no idea that one section of the road she drives on every day is closed to traffic after 8:00 AM. Sadly she received a traffic ticket for $150! Please take a moment and pretend you are my friend, and you just got this ticket. You are feeling bad, and you turn to a friend and tell them what happened. Think what kind of response you would expect from a caring friend.
Now let’s look at the types of responses many would give and think how they would make you feel.
Sympathy I know exactly how you feel. That happened to me.
Oh, don’t think about that.
Let’s get a cup of coffee
Why didn’t you look at the sign?
That’s not so bad, it will be ok.
You’re lucky that you weren’t in an accident!
Take away importance
Oh, that’s nothing compared to what happened to me.
I ran a red light, and they took away my driver’s license!
For me all of these reactions would not have made me feel better and several of them would have made me feel much worse!
Personally I would want someone to feel my pain and say something like:
Oh no, that’s terrible!
rather than try to take away the importance of what happened to me.
Lack of Empathy on Social Media
On social media we don’t see the person in front of us. We don’t see their expression, tone of voice or body language, so it’s easy to forget to empathize. We just see the printed word. It’s important to look past the words and remember there is a person who may be hurting. I often see on social media that after someone posts about a pet that died., people on the thread, tend to write about their own pets and forget to care and empathize with the person who has just lost theirs.
Here’s an example – based on actual posts in similar threads:
Luna, our beautiful beloved 16-year-old cat, died this morning. We miss her terribly.
I was heartbroken when my cat died so I have sympathy for you
Hi, the best thing will be to get another cat. Love.
My cat looks just like yours, she's about 8 years old. I'd lose it if I lost her.
This is my cat Cloe. She died 3 years ago and I can't get over it.
Sorry, do you want another kitty?
Pause a moment before you answer a post on social media and try to see why someone may be posting. It’s important for all of us to remember there is a person out there who may be hurting. By letting them know we feel what they are going through and that we care, can make all the difference.
How to Learn to Be Empathetic?
The first thing we must do to be empathetic to someone’s state, is to center. In this way we can put aside our own thoughts and emotions. You can learn how and why we center in this previous blog: If a Person with Dementia Blames You and about about centering and meditation in an earlier blog: For Your Brain's Sake, Stop Thinking Once we release our own thoughts and emotions by centering, we can fill ourselves with the emotions of the other person. We can understand what they are feeling at this moment, and we can remember a time in our life when we felt something similar.
Then we just need to be there with the other person, so they know we understand. You really don't need to do much more than that. When someone understands what we are going through, we feel so much better.
Change the “Trying to Fix” Default Program
Most of us look for ways of fixing a situation to solve a problem. It’s hard for us to see someone we know upset or sad, so we want to help them feel better. This seems to be the default program for most of us.
In the Book of Joy, the Dalai Lama explains that all human beings want to help each other. When someone does not act in a way that is helpful or even does something that is hurtful, we should feel compassion for this person because something has happened to them.
Perhaps this can explain why most of us want to try to fix things. We are programmed as human beings to want to help each other, but many times all we need to do to help someone is to just be there with them in their pain or sorrow. Trying to fix the situation is not helpful.
Dr. Brené Brown in her wonderful, animated Video on Empathy states that:
Rarely can a response make something better. What makes something better is a connection.
It’s not easy to get out of the default fix-it mode. We really need to constantly check ourselves. Centering is really the key. Even if we practice being empathetic regularly - we can still fall into the pattern of trying to fix it.
With my client’s permission, I would like to share with you what happened a few weeks ago:
I was giving reflexology to my client. During the session she opened up and shared with me some difficulties that she was having. Guess what I did? Yup – I went right into the fix-it mode and started offering ways to solve her issues.
My client was upset because she did not want someone telling her what to do. What she needed from me was to just listen and be there with her, but that fix-it mode took over.
So please be kind to yourself as you learn how to be empathetic. It’s hard to override our default of wanting to fix things – but when we can, we will be able to form empathetic connections. I'm closing with a personal story that lead me to write this blog today:
Our dog Sandy has been having difficulties getting up from a sitting position, but once up, she enjoys walking and loves running down hills in the fields near us. Our vet suggested we try acupuncture to help with her mobility from a sitting position. Sadly, after her acupuncture session this week, there was a major deterioration in her movement. The following day I took Sandy for our regular walk and when she tried to run she fell as if she no longer had control of her back legs. I was in tears. Here I had tried to help my dog feel better and instead had caused her to not be able to run anymore! An acquaintance passed by and I told her the story. Her response was that I need to understand that dogs get old and this is what happens. I understand that she was trying to help, but it made me feel that she didn't understand what happened. All I needed at that moment was for someone to say - "Oh that is so horrible!" Learn to just be there with a person without the need to fix, judge or find the "right thing" to say. When someone feels they are understood, they feel better. Note to those concerned: 3 days later we are beginning to see an improvement in Sandy's movement and hope she will return to the state she was in before the acupuncture.
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