“You’re Not Alone.”: Why Practicing Empathy Requires Going Inward

Understanding the components of empathy and how they connect us emotionally and intellectually is a distinguished exercise in emotional intelligence. Putting empathy into practice is a whole different ballgame and is a true accomplishment for those of us who can pull it off and sustain these skills throughout our careers. In my recent article How The Pros Put Empathy Into Practice, I began to illustrate this approach by explaining the Theory of Mind and how it relates to the inaccurate assumptions we make about others in our adult lives. I also laid out a concise list of actions that, if engaged in, will help you “zoom out” on this big old world and take in some perspectives other than the ones you’re accustomed to.

Allow me to take you through some additional rules for putting empathy into practice and actualizing other people’s truths. Master these “social skills” and you may be responsible for triggering a wave of true understanding.

Listen Without Judgment

If your intention is to understand someone else’s truth, you must listen with NO pre-conceived notions. Is this even possible? It is when you listen with your brain as an empty canvas. Through hearing the story teller’s words, you can paint a virtual picture of what they’re seeing. This act, like so many others, requires a specialized discretion on your part, which starts by dropping all assumptions that your reality is everyone else’s reality. For instance, avoid sketching an image of your boss when you’re listening to someone vent about their boss— a person you’ve perhaps never met. By imagining your boss and listening through the filter of her character profile as you see it, you’re not only tempted to go mentally off track (“hmmm, I need to reach out to her. I owe her that report.”), but also to miss a few key words from the story teller’s life script that are crucial to your understanding their truth.

So, what’s the magic potion for listening without judgment? It’s to remain curious and not settle on an assumption. It’s a way to authentically stand under their reality. When you continue to listen to and observe others from a “child’s eye perspective”, it’s remarkable how much more about a person you’ll understand. For example, have you ever watched a child study an ant as it goes about its duties? They could watch for hours, absolutely enthralled and fascinated with every move the ant makes. The child doesn’t assume, but continues to observe, taking in brand-new information without the influence of experience attached. Like many of life’s pursuits, applying this approach to empathy is simple but not easy.

Recognize and Feel The Emotion

Empathy contrasts with sympathy in that empathy secures connection, while sympathy, however well-intentioned, is a source of disconnection between you and the sympathized. To empathize with someone who’s in a dark place, you must connect with a similar dark feeling within yourself before true empathy can ensue. Have a look at this 2-minute video based on the audio from a talk by University of Houston research professor Brené Brown. Then, think of a time when you’ve been in the storyteller’s situation. Try to “feel” or re-experience that emotion. How do you accomplish this when your circumstances are different from the empathized, complete with your own unique biases?

But wait. And that’s a BIG wait! Research has found that empathy may result in you spiraling into fatigue, while compassion neurochemically makes you feel good. I’ll explore that contrast before diving into compassion in my follow-up article.