This week, Systemic Coach Zita Tulyahikayo and Barrister and NLP Master Practitioner James Pereira QC discuss empathy – what it means, how it can support us, and how to cultivate it.
Empathy is the most mysterious exchange we can have with another person. It is accessible to all of us. We just have to be open, willing to identify the place where we can pour ourselves into the story and experience the world through the eyes, heart and mind of someone other than ourself.
What is empathy?
Empathy has been described as the ability to step imaginatively into the shoes of another person and understand their feelings and perspectives. Rather than being in tune with our own feelings, or our feelings about that another person, we try to understand how they are feeling from their standpoint, whether or not we would feel the same way if we faced what they are facing. We fully embrace and accept their feelings as true for them.
Why is empathy important?
The benefits of empathy are self-evident. In our personal lives it supports us to better understand the needs of those around us, and so more closely and effectively support our loved ones. It reduces conflict, and increases openness, trust and self – realisation.
In our professional lives it supports us to understand the needs of our colleagues and clients, so that we can build lasting and loyal relationships. Even in the adversarial realm it has a role to play: understanding the perspective and feelings of our opponents equips us with knowledge that can provide insights into problem solving and overcoming seemingly intractable disputes.
How can we cultivate empathy?
Learn to listen
First, we must learn to listen. We cannot empathise with another unless we allow them to communicate effectively with us. Listening is an essential part of effective communication.
Yet whilst vast amounts of time and money are spent training people to speak and present more effectively, very little attention is paid to listening. Listening is an active process that requires us to be engaged and focused on what the other person is telling us, not just by the words they use and how they speak them, but also by their silence, their breathing, their eye patterns, their posture, their dress, and all other means of expression.
Active listening can be assisted by appropriate and well-chosen questions that are open and neutral and so support the speaker to develop their story.
Ask, “And how did you feel when he said that to you?” rather than “You must have felt really embarrassed, right?” Reflecting back what is being said can also assist. “It sounds like you felt let down when you were not supported for a promotion.”
Secondly, we must learn to suspend our own judgments and critiques, and our desire to offer advice or solutions to the other person. This can be very challenging indeed, particularly for lawyers and others involved in advisory or adversarial roles where the mind is trained to act quickly to analyse, evaluate, find answers or win arguments.
The issue here is not simply that it is harder to listen when our mind is actively engaged in another process. It goes deeper than that. A judgmental or problem solving mindset skips forward too quickly beyond the experience of the present, and in doing so we miss the opportunity to fully engage in and develop a true sense of the subjective experience of the other.
Also, by believing that our own judgment or a perceived solution is more important than the problem, we reflect a sense that what we think or have to say is more important than what the other wants to explain or share. Such a mindset is destructive of empathy.
Connect at an appropriate distance
Thirdly, learn to connect with the other while keeping an appropriate distance. Connecting with the speaker is necessary in order to build rapport, and hence trust and openness. Using self-disclosure can be a useful way of achieving this, because it can bring our own world closer to the speaker’s. “I can remember when my boss said that to me, and how that made me feel.”
On the other hand, excessive sharing may give the impression that we are more interested in ourselves than the other, so they may feel that there is no point in them sharing with us. Also, we must be careful not to confuse our own subjective world with that of the speaker. If we start to see their story as our own story, we are liable to confuse our own feelings with theirs. In this way we lose the ability to genuinely relate to what they are feeling.
Fourthly, we must practice the skills that support empathy. All of us have personal and professional relationships which can be enhanced by empathy. Like everything else, the more we put into it, the more we will get out of it. The more regularly we engage in empathising, the more of a habit it will become.
The authors welcome feedback from anyone concerned with the issues raised in their writing, and are also interested in hearing from anyone with suggestions for future articles. You can reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @LifeTherapyZita and at james.pereiraQC@ftbchambers.co.uk and on Twitter @JamesPereiraQC.
The full Loving Legal Life series can be found here.