Building Connections: The Art of Empathy

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Adolescence is a time to build connections that often last for life. When someone you know tells you they’re overwhelmed or stressed, do you respond with empathy? Or do you react? Also, do you realize the difference?

Every day, several times a day, we are gambling overour understanding of one another. Not in technical words, but we hear people say these things to each other often. Have you heard them or said them too?

  • “Why can’t you understand?”
  • “You just don’t seem to get me!”
  • “What part of my language isn’t clear?”
  • “Never mind, you’ll never knowhow I feel!”

Of course, everybody’s talking about empathy. Some surveys are claiming that empathy is declining in the world. And yet at many places, there are mass movements to enhance empathy by guiding parents, children, organizations and individuals to rediscover ways of opening the window into people’s souls.

Empathy is the talk of the town. Whether people have it, or not.

The question is — how can you love someone, anyone; be their friend, or even work with them if you aren’t going to be able to connect with them, and improve your interpersonal relationship? Empathy is human beings’ way of understanding others. It is the talent that helps people get along with each other better — an emotional connection tool.

Sympathy vs. Empathy

Empathy is a capacity to sense other people’s emotions — so we can imagine what they might be thinking and feeling. In a spiritual way we can say it’s letting someone know they’re not alone.

Because we know so little about what both really entail, we conflate sympathy and empathy. Sympathy at its core is pity. It creates a power differential. For example, when friends go through a hard time and you tell them, “You must be feeling miserable, I feel so bad for you”, it’s not really conveying that you care or understand. It appears that you are looking down on them as measly miserable creatures. This is pity or sympathy. As against saying, “This is a really rough time; you are so brave to be able to face something like this”. This reflects how they feel, without judging or labelling them. And in fact, you’re acknowledging their pain and courage for enduring that pain. Empathy builds a bridge and then the other person can walk across it, and connect meaningfully with you. Sympathy breaks communication bridges and fixates on one thing — the person’s misery. Nobody likes that. We all want to be cared for and we do want to care, too. We just often don’t know how to.

Stepping into someone’s shoes

Empathy is a capacity to sense other people’s emotions — so we can imagine what they might be thinking and feeling. In a spiritual way we can say it’s letting someone know they’re not alone. Having our voice heard, and being understood is a basic human need. There’s nobody who will say I don’t want others to understand me. When we are empathic, the other person gets the feeling that we are seeing their world and their problems exactly from their point of view. Like we have a window into their heart and soul and are looking through it. And of course, walking in their shoes too, to see where and how they hurt.

Empathy is not easy

Like any other skill, empathy can be learned. Some of us think we know how to feel for others and I bet the majority of people are right. Yet, we could be mistaken. We might believe that we understand others, while we really do not. Empathy helps us get in touch with our feelings and gives us an emotional understanding of ourselves, then others. This is vital to all relationships.

  • Friends
  • Classmates
  • Sports buddies
  • Parent-child
  • Teacher-student
  • Any relationship at all.

When we don’t feel understood, we can’t see meaning in the relationship.

Empathy is about being mindful

We tend to think we’re sending vibes of compassion and understanding; but what if the other person does not feel cared for or understood? That’s the checkpoint. Empathy is two-way. You can’t say you are empathic, while the other person does not agree that you are. It’s true that it’s very hard to empathize, but it’s also not impossible. Once you learn the art, you cannot help always applying it in practice.

Here is a clear 4-step process for empathy.

Step 1: See the world and problems, as others see it.
Step 2: Don’t judge them for how they feel or think.
Step 3: Actually understand how they are feeling.
Step 4: Communicate your understanding to them.

It’s not always sequential. We can go to any step without having the others met but following from 1 to 4 makes us caring and empathic people.

Can we empathize if we don’t feel happy?

We can’t be nice to others if we are not at peace. When we are in any kind of pain (physical or emotional), our focus is eternally on ourselves. Haven’t we all been in situations where we were going through a rough time and someone we know discussed their problem with us? And we thought immediately, or even said it out aloud: “Hey, you should listen to my story, you’ll forget yours”. Maybe we’re trying to make this friend or family member feel better in comparison, but in the process, we discount their pain. If you think about the four steps above, we failed at each — we did not acknowledge their pain, we judged them for not being able to cope with something so trivial, we did not understand them; and we certainly did not communicate any empathy.

Strike the balance

We have to work on balancing the thought and emotion component of people’s troubles. So, we care for ourselves, stay strong, help others, and don’t lose ourselves in the bargain. Empathy of course doesn’t just happen. We work towards it. Here are some tips that will help.

  • Be open-minded.
  • Be true to yourself.
  • Create a connection.
  • Open ears, and doors.
  • Allow people to speak.
  • Don’t be quick to judge.
  • Don’t pretend, truly listen.
  • Respect other’s viewpoints.
  • Allow frank communication.
  • Ask questions, so you learn more.
  • Make it about them, not about you.

When you become more empathic, you build better relationships and carve a better world.

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Dr Shefali Batra
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Dr Shefali Batra

Dr Shefali Batra is a Senior Psychiatrist and CBT Expert, and is the Founder of Mindframes. She posts and conducts regular ‘lives’ on Instagram @drshefalibatra.