A friend comes and tells you that a project they had been working on for months got disapproved. What is the first thing you will most likely tell him? You might ask him not to worry, keep calm, trust that what he is going through is just a phase. At worst, you could even tell him that you have been through something much more difficult. I am sure you are now trying to recall all those instances when you expressed yourself similarly in real-life scenarios.
While there is no harm in comforting our loved ones, given that we have the intention to help, we often say things to console them with the assumption that they are seeking reassurance from us. What if they are not? What if they are only looking for someone who could hear them out? What if they want to get in touch with their feelings and needs with our help? But, we never get to the deeper level of thinking these things because we are too intent on assuming and expressing that- it will be okay.
What prevents us from hearing what the other person wants to say?
We are generally not good listeners. Even if we have the intention to listen, we try to shift the conversation toward what we can do in a particular situation. While we are not wrong in doing so, we rob ourselves of the opportunity to create a deeper connection with ourselves and other people. Our tendency to suggest what is correct for someone in a situation often overtakes our ability and willingness to listen to what is alive in them at that moment.
In the process of helping, we start educating, correcting, and dismissing what someone might be feeling instead. There are chances that the person already knows what they should and should not do in unfavorable situations. Often what they might be needing is our presence. We can only understand what someone needs when we let them express themselves, listen to them, and empathize with them.
What gets in the way, then? We can explore this question with a concept called Empathy Blockers. Holley Humphrey- a trainer for empathic communication, recognized some common behaviors that prevent us from connecting with others in an empathetic way.
Advising: I think you should do this; how come you did not do so?
One-upping: That is nothing; wait till you hear what happened to me.
Educating: What you are going through can be positive if you did so and so.
Consoling: It’s not your fault; you did the best you could.
Story-telling: That reminds me of the time.
Shutting down: Cheer up. Don’t feel so bad.
Sympathizing: Oh, you poor thing.
Interrogating: When did this begin?
Explaining: I would have called, but.
Correcting: That is not how it happened.
These behaviors, which often stem from the thought-process that we have to fix situations and offer solutions, deprive us of the space to be present for others and connect with them. They prevent us from being empathic to the people around us when we focus more on what we can offer to the other people rather than understanding what they need.
How can we be more empathetic?
Empathy is a skill that can help us understand what people around us might be feeling and needing. While we can sense what someone around us is going through in a particular situation, our empathic guesses may not always land right on them. We may think our friend whose project got rejected is sad, but she could be frustrated or even angry. Conversations can allow us the space to get to the root of what our friend might be going through. However, a focused process of connecting with people around us while also getting in touch with our feelings and needs can help us empathize in a more meaningful way. One concept in action that can make the process of empathizing with others easier and insightful is the Empathy Archery developed by Seed of Peace.
The Empathy Archery consists of five rings. The outermost ring indicates listening in silence. The deeper we go, it includes aspects such as- summarizing, sensing what's important, sensing feelings, and sensing needs. We can understand each ring with the example of our friend whose supervisor declined his project.
Listening in silence: is the process of empathizing with someone through our presence. So, we don't have to say anything to our friend here. We only intend to give him our attention, be there for him, and understand what he is going through.
Summarizing: after listening in silence and taking time to process what our friend tells us, we then summarize in one or two phrases what we heard him say and check in with him if we understood it as intended. An example could be, "What I heard is that the project you had been working on for three months did not get approved. Is that what you mean?” If our friend thinks our summary is inadequate, we can ask him to clarify further. If he agrees, we can then move to the next ring.
Sensing what's important: in this ring, we try to understand what matters for our friend in this situation. We can ask him questions like: “Is it important to you that your project gets reconsideration?” “Would you like to have a conversation with your supervisor to find a way out?” His responses will allow us to understand what matters to him in this situation.
Sensing feelings: as the conversation builds, we sense what our friend might be feeling in that situation. We can ask him if he is sad, frustrated, angry, disappointed, scared, or feeling something else. (Note that, to help our friend understand his feelings, we need to have a basic vocabulary of pleasant and unpleasant emotions and their functions. Anger indicates that we have a problem to fight through. Disgust tells us that we are trying to reject something around us that we consider unhealthy. For this reason, words like good, bad, fine are not appropriate terms to label our feelings.)
Sensing needs: as we arrive at the innermost ring, we now sense the underlying needs behind how our friend is feeling. For example, if our friend is angry, we can ask, “Are you angry because changing the project or starting everything from scratch will be a problem for you?" Similarly, if our friend might be sad instead, we can ask, "Are you sad because the news came to you suddenly, and you would have liked to hear from your supervisor in a more acknowledging way?”
When it comes to empathizing with people, we usually resort to shutting down what they are going through, “Don’t worry. It will be okay,” advising them, “You should do this and that,” or consoling them, “I’m sure this is happening for a good reason.” We might be keen on helping and there is nothing wrong with that intent. But, when we start thinking of words to throw at others to console or advise them before establishing a connection with them, there are chances that the other person will not feel heard or acknowledged in a way they would like. Therefore, it’s important that we are aware of the kind of help the other person is seeking from us first. Is the other person wanting some advice? Does she need some consolation? Does she need us to help her reflect, so she can understand the situation that she is going through better? Empathy Archery can help us in doing so. The presence of the outermost ring of Empathy Archery signifies that we can empathize with others or begin to do so even in silence, which is counterintuitive to how we usually approach people when it comes to empathizing with them. We then try to- summarize our comprehension of what they shared, understand what matters for the other person, and sense what he is feeling and needing. Hence, it matters that we 'connect' with people before finding ways to 'correct' them or their situation. As long as we direct our efforts toward sensing what is going on for the other person, we know we will have taken steps toward forming an empathetic connection with them.