How To Be Empathetic in Difficult Conversations
Empathy is not altruism
Empathy is one of the most mysterious skills human species have developed. It is not an exclusive ability of homo sapiens, but it’s obvious that we can be exceptional in it among all the species on this planet. Not all of us are good at it, but all of us have the genetic potential of practicing empathy in any given situation.
But what is empathy?
If we want to know how to be empathetic we definitely have to understand what empathy is. Plain and simple, empathy is our ability to detect and understand the thoughts, feelings and intentions of others. It is very important to emphasize that empathy itself does not stand for any kind of action, like helpfulness, altruism or co-operation.
Empathy is purely a state of mind when you can experience things from the perspective of somebody else. His or her thoughts, feelings and intentions becomes clear for you.
This distinction is helpful when we want to see clearly in the debates whether there is such thing as altruism or not. Some argue that true altruism cannot exist because the law of evolution wouldn’t leave any species alive with genes that instructs them to help other living creatures at the cost of helping themselves (except their own offsprings).
But empathy is not an ability you can only use to help others.
It’s something you can use to understand the world around you, to figure out why people around you behave as they do, and to be able to predict their actions based on your empathic observations. Empathy is a really powerful ability that help you handle the complexity of the cultural environment around you. That is another reason why it is useful to know how to be empathetic in a difficult situation.
Why is empathy so hard?
If we, as human beings, are the masters of empathy among all the species on the Earth, why is it so hard for us to practice it? It is because it seems to oppose our basic, instinctive ego-defense mechanisms. The integrity of our ego is so important to us that in any situation where the other person wants or thinks something that is different to our intentions or opinion, we tend to turn on these self-defense procedures.
We are worried about the world being scarce of resources and we assume that we have to fight for them with the others. So it is reasonable for us to think that if somebody have different intentions or opinion to us, then s/he is a threat to our well-being.
For example, your spouse says she would like to change the carpet in the living room. You really love this carpet, you bought it when you first moved in together, and it reminds you of these early years of your relationship. It is a natural and instinctive reaction of our brain to turn on our ancient reflexes and to look at this situation as a zero-sum game in a world being scarce of resources. It’s either me or you: there are no other alternatives. In this case, our ego jumps to the driving seat and we start to argue for the carpet.
And turning on ego usually goes with turning off empathy.
How to turn empathy on again?
This is one of the toughest question when we talk about conflicts or difficult conversations in any kind of relationship.
How to turn empathy on again? How to be empathetic when your ego wants to control the situation? But now, as we know that we turn off empathy because we feel ourselves in danger and we give priority to our self-defense mechanisms, we can answer this question.
We simply have to make ourselves aware of the fact that we are not in danger.
That the world is not a place it used to be one hundred thousand years ago when the instinctive nature of our brain was developed. The choice is not between me or the others. We do not live in a bipolar world anymore. We have a magnificent mind that is a genius of problem solving. Millions of alternative solutions can be found in the world out there and we are fully capable of finding these solutions. There is no danger.
We can be sure we will be able to find a solution that will more or less fit to us and to the other person too.
And the latter sentence should be our mantra when we want to turn our empathy on in a difficult situation. Everything will be fine, because we have the necessary internal resources to solve this situation in a way that will be beneficial for both of us.
If you want know how to be empathetic in a difficult conversation, you should really memorize this sentence. This is the 0th step of the process. By recalling this sentence you can give yourself a chance to turn on your empathy. And if you want to stay empathetic during the difficult conversation, there are 4 additional steps you should follow.
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Step 1: Give your ego a day-off
As you cease to feel yourself in danger you will be able to put your own ego on hold for a short period of time.
You can imagine this as if you asked your ego: “You mean a lot to me. Would you be so kind as to have a short nap while I’m listening to this other person? I won’t be able to listen to you in the meantime, and by having a nap, you won’t find my lack of attention offensive. Thank you and see you soon!”
This may sound funny, but the truth is that you need to reassure your ego before turning all your attention to somebody else. Otherwise, it would become so jealous and scared to be left alone defenseless, that it could get back into the driver’s seat in an instant.
Step 2: Pay attention without judgement
Ok, so you calmed down your ego and decided to pay attention what the other person is saying. Nice work, but you need to keep on focusing.
Your ego is not in deep sleep. It’s just having a nap, still lurking around, waiting for any clue that shows that its integrity is in danger.
Let’s see an example! Imagine that you are talking with a colleague about a report you sent him yesterday. Now he pops into your office and claims that some very important points are missing from the report you prepared. He seems a bit upset, because he needs to use the missing information right now, otherwise he won’t be able to meet an important deadline.
You try to remain calm and show empathy about his problem, although you are quite sure you included those data in the file. But then he says: “I can’t believe you forgot about it, it’s the most important part of the whole report. What am I supposed to do without those numbers?”
And at this point your ego, who was waiting behind impatiently till this moment of the conversation, suddenly springs forth and gives a harsh answer: “And I cannot believe YOU were not able to find them when they’re right there in the first appendix!”
Yeah, that was not very empathetic.
Then how to be empathetic in a situation like this. The most important rule if you want to practice empathy is to stop judging what the other person is saying. Just listen to it, and instead of focusing on what you think or feel about it, focus on what he or she is talking about. Focus on his or her words, voice and gestures.
And try to understand the thoughts, feelings and intentions behind these externally observable behavioral signs. Change your perspective. Leave your ego behind and inspect the situation from the perspective of the other person.
Step 3: Change your perspective and give yourself time to explore
This is one of the toughest thing to carry out in a difficult conversation. For a period of time you need to stop thinking on what is your opinion and feelings about what the other person is saying. It’s irrelevant from the point of empathy.
What is relevant is to truly understand what is in his or her mind. From his or her perspective. So if you want to stay empathetic and find a way to solve a difficult conversation, the best thing to do at the beginning is to do nothing. Nothing, but listening.
No judgement. No thinking forward. No interruption. No connection with your opinion. Just listening.
Listening and trying to imagine the whole situation from the perspective of the other. Even if this new perspective is offensive to your ego. Even if it’s ridiculous. Even if it’s irrational. Even if it is based on obviously false judgement by the other.
The period of empathy is not suitable for anything else than understanding. If you try to do anything else, empathy will perish away like it has never been there.
In one of our other articles about the importance of empathy (Why Is Empathy Important And Why Is It So Hard?) you can find out how to handle the obvious tension this strict interpretation of empathy creates. But for now, let’s just assume you are capable of doing it: exploring the situation from the perspective of the other person. And I’m sorry to say this, but that won’t be enough.
Step 4: Say it out loud
If you really want to benefit from your efforts of changing your perspective, you need to say your observations out loud. That means you tell the other person what you understood from what s/he was trying to say.
This is the simplest, yet one of the hardest form of everyday interpersonal communication. It is called empathetic listening or active listening. To be precise, active listening is all the above together, in these 3 steps:
1. You are listening to the other person without judgement.
2. You change your perspective and look at the situation through his or her eyes.
3. Finally, you give a feedback, telling him or her what you understood about his or her thoughts, feelings and intentions.
In the example above that means that instead of the personal insult you say something like this:
“You are upset, because you expected to find those numbers in the report, but you didn’t. And you are worried, because you have a deadline you won’t be able to meet without these numbers.”
No judgment. No hypothetical conclusions. No questioning of his feelings or intentions. Just the plain and simple mirroring of your experience about the other person right now. Often that means simply summarizing what s/he has just said.
It seems to be really easy. Then why is it so hard?
It’s incredibly hard because when you practice empathic listening, you completely leave your ego out of your speech. You only say what you experienced (heard, saw, felt) about the other person’s behavior and words.
And it is always difficult to leave your opinion, your attitudes, your doubts, your questions and your requests out of your speech.
But the good news is that you can leave the resistance of your ego behind and let your empathetic side emerge in a difficult conversation. You only need to eliminate the 3 biggest misunderstandings about empathy in your mind, and understand its true benefits to your life. How to do this? Read our article about it to get a couple of pieces of useful advice!
In the next 24 hours, give empathic listening at least five times in your conversations (not necessarily in the same ones). Don’t forget to listen without judgement, and then saying out loud what you got to know about the other person’s opinion, feelings and intentions. Do it based on this formula:
“You read this long article and you feel a bit tired. You need a coffee right now.” 😉
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Reading all these things about how to be empathetic is one thing. But when it’s about practicing it in our real life situations, its not as easy as it seems.
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