The Missing Link to Empathy

We all want to be valued, heard and understood without judgement. This requires empathy which is a skill that ultimately tells another, “I care about what you have to say.”

Done correctly, empathy leads to stronger relationships as it encourages authenticity, transparency and collaborative problem-solving. The challenge is, many of us are not as effective as we think we are.

Empathy at its core is allowing another to share their experience, story or situation with you so that they feel heard, understood and acknowledged; the other person feels like you identify with what it’s like to be in their shoes.

The most challenging part of being empathetic is silencing that voice in our head that keeps on talking when we’re “listening”. This is the missing link between what is heard and being empathetic as our inner voice likes to add an element of conversational control through our judgements, perceptions and beliefs.

The type of listening we are after is known as ‘active listening’. Below are some things to try in order to be empathetic and provide the other person what they really want: to be valued, heard and understood.

  • Stop Fixing: Our mind is designed to make sense of and fix things. Someone may truly want your help in fixing their problem and we love to provide answers. Instead, let them finish what they need to say, acknowledge what you heard and validate any associated emotions. Next, identify their needs.
  • Don’t Compare: Many of us like to say “I know what you are dealing with,” or “Yes, I have the same issue.” Despite our good intentions, comparison may invalidate their experience and the message they want to convey. It’s their story, not yours.
  • Limit Control: In a vehicle, the driver seat gives us the freedom to get from point A to point B, our way. In conversations, how we respond or react may be viewed as back-seat driving and not handing over control. Let them steer to their point B – it’s their journey, not your map.
  • Monitor the Ego: Our personal desires of what we want out of conversations may create stumbling blocks along the journey. Impatience, directness, self-gratification, recognition and many other ego-driven needs can make the conversation more about us. If you find yourself doing this, ask yourself “What validation am I seeking?” Remember, it’s not about you.
  • Question Beliefs: If I start a conversation believing someone may react a certain way, it can get in the way of being empathetic. Start all conversations by dropping any beliefs as they can take us away from being present, listening to and valuing what they have to say. Pre-determining conclusions means we are not being open for other possibilities.
  • Acknowledge: The most powerful way to show another you care and appreciate what they said is to end with a statement that acknowledges what they care about. For example, “I see that getting feedback is really important to you as you want to grow and develop.” This type of acknowledgement validates that the other stands for something important.

Checking off these boxes during a conversation will optimize your attention and show you care about what another has to say. Keep in mind, empathy doesn’t mean you necessarily have to agree with them; rather, that they feel heard and validated about what they are dealing with.

Kwela Leadership and Talent Management workshops such as Conflict Management, Influencing Skills and Leading Self & Emotional Intelligence are grounded in the concept of how our inner dialogue and inferences need to be removed in order to link to another’s message.

Glen Sollors, Partner