People get angry.
They get happy, frustrated, passionate…emotional!
It happens, but if you’re shy or introverted, it can be disconcerting when someone you recently met (or even someone you know well) expresses their feelings.
Perhaps that’s because introverts and the shy often guard their inner worlds. We’re not so accustomed to emotions floating out in the open.
But it’s important to know when this happens, it’s an opportunity.
Whether the emotions are big (“I just lost my job”) or less so (“I love mystery novels”), knowing how to connect with someone on an emotional level is powerful.
It lets you “be there” for them AND allows you to deeply connect.
In fact, the ability to empathize correctly creates deep bonds and friendships like few other interpersonal communication skills can.
Empathy in Action
Recently, me and one of my close friends were hanging out. Over the course of the conversation, he kept saying things like, “…just been so busy” OR “…so exhausted lately…” OR “…not much free time.”
“Sounds like you’ve been pretty busy lately,” I probed. “Lots going on?”
I could see his shoulders relax.
He went on to tell me about training for his first marathon. He was super excited, but the intense preparation sucked his free time.
He felt frustrated, but also guilty since he was “complaining” about something he signed up for. (I could sense this from his reluctance to talk about it and his tone of voice.)
“Well,” I told him, “it seems like you’re still excited about the race but you were just caught off guard by how much the training took over your life.”
“Yeah, exactly! That’s exactly how I feel…”
What Exactly is Empathy?
Empathy is the ability to spontaneously identify with another on a direct emotional level. Essentially, you’re giving the other person a chance to express their emotions AND know those feelings have been interpreted correctly and accepted.
Even with less intense emotion, like my friend’s example above, empathizing helps people feel they aren’t alone. They aren’t isolated.
They feel someone understands them on the most fundamental conscious level: emotionally. This REALLY does a lot to connect two people.
You can empathize with positive or negative emotions. Being there through the bad emotions comforts. Sharing in the good emotions increases joy.
Both deepen your bond.
How to Empathize Correctly
Empathizing is about reading between the lines of the conversation. It’s realizing they’re describing their feelings for a reason. In other words, recognizing it’s important to them.
Your job is to put yourself in their shoes, in their situation, and figure out why it’s important and what exactly they’re feeling.
You may also need to help them work out what they’re trying to say, since sometimes they’re clouded by emotion.
Here are some helpful Dos and Don’ts to Empathizing:
- Notice when a topic is repeated several times. Often that means the subject is the “hot button” item they really want to talk about.
- Pay attention to their spontaneous emotional expressions. For example, where does their speech and body language seem more “intense?” This could indicate the true nature of the issue.
- Communicate more expressively to get them more expressive. Exaggerate your body language a bit and be more expressive with your voice. This will encourage them to express their feelings more fully.
- Ask them to describe their perspective then probe for more details. It’s perfectly ok to say, “Let me see if I understand…what you’re saying is [paraphrase their situation here]. And that makes you feel [insert emotion here].” If you’re wrong, they’ll usually clarify further.
- Remember it’s about them, not you. You don’t have to relate a similar story from your life or how you’ve also “felt that way before.” Focus on them and work to understand where they’re coming from. Put “you” aside for a moment.
- Don’t assume they’re looking for advice. Many times people just want to feel understood; jumping to your solution robs them of that. If they want advice, they’ll probably ask for it.
- Don’t judge them. Whether someone is upset or happy, passing judgement doesn’t help. The fact you think their reasoning is off or their feelings unwarranted is pointless. At the “moment of emotion,” understanding is what they need.
- Try not to say “I understand.” This sounds counter-intuitive (since that’s what they really want), but it’s too much a shortcut. You SHOW you understand by accurately summing up their emotional situation.
In fact, the above example (paraphrasing their situation then emotion) is a great way to format your empathizing statement. Here are some variations:
“So not only did you lose your job, you’re not sure you’ll be able to find anything else in this area you’ll enjoy doing. And that’s got your frustrated.”
“You must feel really proud of yourself for losing all that weight!”
“Seems like you just want this goal to be accomplished so you can get back to a more normal lifestyle.”
“Wow, bet it feels amazing you’ve travelled the world and can check that off your list.”
Shared Emotion = Connection
What you say to empathize can be as unique and varied as the people you know and the situations they describe.
The tips above should help you come to an understanding of what the person is feeling. And that’s where they may say something like, “YEAH, EXACTLY!” Like it’s a weight off their shoulders.
They’re no longer alone in the world feeling that emotion. You now share that “burden or joy” with them.
It’s this connection that bonds people together.
What are your thoughts? Write in the comments below…