We all want to be seen and to know that we matter. I’ve shown this video many times in our training as it is such a good explanation of empathy and what it actually means. It’s not about passing judgement on others or even being able to identify because we’ve gone through the same thing. Empathy is being able to connect with someone else where they are at
I used to think you either had empathy or you didn’t – kind of like a personality trait. Over my years of being in the adoption world I’ve begun to see empathy very differently. I know that it’s something that develops early on through our significant relationships. Some people seem to have an innate ability to empathise, but whether that comes from their early experiences completely I don’t know.
I do know though that it takes quite a lot of self-management to empathise. It takes the ability to keep your mouth shut and listen well. During my coaching training I learnt so much about listening that I didn’t know. Like most people, I thought I was a good listener if I was just able to keep my mouth shut and nod at the right times. It’s so much more than that and it takes practice and self-control.
When someone else is talking we have to manage our tendency to be thinking ahead to what we’re going to say in response. We listen to respond not to understand. BUT when we do that we miss what the person is actually saying (or not saying). We have our own agenda and regardless of whether it’s what the person needs we plough on regardless. That’s not listening!!
When have you felt most connected to someone else in conversation?
It’s usually when you know that they are truly listening, that they have understood where you’re coming from. They have seen you and you matter.
When working with children and young people, in whatever capacity, this skill is essential. To be able to hear through the story of the “he said and she did” we need to be able to really see the child’s emotions in order to respond to them and not get caught up in the drama. Whether that’s joyful emotions or sad emotions we want children to feel that we connect with them in that moment.
So, how can we develop the skill of listening and in turn show empathy to others? Here are a few tips I’ve learnt along the way:-
- It’s not all about you! I heard this recently and thought it’s so true – the difference between us and God is that God doesn’t think He’s us! When you’re trying to truly connect with someone else put your own stuff aside – it’s about them, not you! In order to do this, you have to be able to self-manage the comments and opinions in your head.
- It’s not about finding a solution right now. This is a hard one as many of us are solution focused and we want to be able to fix things for people. There is a time for thinking about strategies and solutions, but you can’t do that without first connecting with the person and understanding what the real problem is.
- Don’t assume you know what the real problem is. It’s so easy to jump to conclusions either because we know the other persons’ circumstances or because we have heard the first few words and then jumped in with what we think it’s all about. People often start talking about things that are nothing to do with the real issue. Be patient and wait to hear.
- Cut through the story. With children and young people especially, there’s always a huge story (if you can get them to talk at all) and it can take up so much time trying to navigate your way through the details. You don’t need to do that to really listen and connect. You can ask questions that will get to the real heart of the matter and actually helps the other person to feel listened to. “What’s important about that for you?”, “How did that make you feel?”. Questions that get to the root of the issue. You don’t need to know the detail to connect and actually for some children and adults telling the story just re-traumatises them.
- Know that your presence is powerful. You don’t have to have the ‘right’ words or be an expert in something in order to make a huge difference to someone else. Your presence is enough. Your time and focus on them is powerful. We live in a world of lonely people – our young people have heightened anxiety with low self-esteem. Coming along side and saying “I don’t really know what to say but I will stand with you”, is magic. I know this is one of the reasons many of us don’t reach out to others when we know they are hurting. It’s not because we don’t care, but more that we feel inadequate. You are not inadequate in that persons’ life. Real, true connection is powerful and can transform a life.