Understanding and Practicing Empathy

We all know how good it feels when we feel that we are understood..  I want to go a bit deeper into the reasons why that is, what role does this play in our relationships and most importantly of all, how can we bring more of this into our lives for ourselves and our loved ones.

One of the most common ways I have heard empathy described is as a process where one puts themselves into someone else's shoes and imagines for a brief period what it must be like to be that person and what kind of struggles they could be dealing with.  This can help open up communication in relationships by simply removing the judgment factor or weather the person is right or wrong in their doing and open up curiosity to their experience. It allows for more openness and thus more opportunities for growth or healing.  Remember that great feeling of being understood and how helpful it can be to our well being?

By now hopefully we all have a grasp on what empathy is and how important it is in our I lives.  I would like to get into some more of the subtle but important lessons I have learned and continued to practice to help grow my awareness and be a better person for myself and my community.  For this we need to go a bit deeper into the how of practicing empathy and by doing so more establish even further what it is so when you go back and forth in your life from, what empathy is it and how it is best practice, they will both continue to reinforce the message that empathy is here to help you to connect yourself and others.  

Step number one, check in with yourself.

I get a sense there is not a ton of people that are doing this in their day to day practice and it is an ESSENTIAL step for effectively connecting with others.  Like, how on Earth do we think we will be able to be there for someone else if we have no clue what is going on for us. In any given moment our nervous system is dealing with so much constant exterior stimulation let alone all of our internal battles with the day to day grind of being human.  So step number 1 is connect with yourself first. This can be a regular daily meditation practice, or maybe it’s part of your self care mixed in with exercise where you are carving out time for yourself to tap into your body and feel what is going on for you so you can be present to what is going on for someone else with less reactivity.

Step number two, self empathy

I could write a whole article on this step and I will so look for it coming up, but to keep it short and simple for the purpose of this blog I will touch on this step and move forward.  If you have started with step one you will be in a good place to take a look at what is going on in your life, how your feeling in this very moment and how well equipped you are for being there for someone else.  This is extremely useful information when trying to connect with someone else because it is a good chance even if you are feeling great in this moment if you are talking to someone and they are in pain it is quite possible for you to have a reaction to their expression of it. This is where having done your check in and holding you intention in mind of being effective, that reacting to this feeling of shared pain or person pain you are experiencing may not actually be helpful.  Just be aware of it, make a mental note to come back to it if need be and just realize in this moment you are not here to address you feeling you have already done that in step one. You are here to listen and be non reactive so this other person can feel safe to express themselve and feel heard. Again, if you allow yourself to get triggered or rather act out on what triggered you, it will not be considered empathy and most likely will cause the person that is opening up to shut down as they will see that they are not being met with understanding rather reactionary behavior and lack of curiosity with their own experience.

Step number 3, ask question, offer guesses.

Feelings, feelings feelings feelings.  This is where we get to the good stuff.  Everyone has them but no one wants to look at them.  Or rather, it is one of the hardest most courageous acts we can take.  And of course this can be hard. Often cases people hold strong conditioning not to look at or reveal their feelings due to fear of being judged or shamed.  This is where if you can stay far far away from these ways of thing yourself while being present for the person, you can create the space that they can share and maybe even experience their own feelings with not associating right and wrong to how they feel.  Or even feel guilty about taking up space to experience and externalize their emotions. In my years I have noticed for myself personally, when I have been with someone I have trusted and they have helped me open up and share how I am feeling it has been incredibly helpful.  I dont always feel better right away, but there's some kind of emotional release and that's always the start to getting back on track. Re engaging with that self awareness and road to personal freedom and self empowerment.

If someone is having trouble sharing their feelings often time it can be incredibly helpful for them to receive the prompting question of, “how are you feeling?” or another version could look like “and what sensation are you experiencing when you think about that?”.  These are to help people feel safe and let them know that you are listening and you do care about how they feel. Even if it is still uncomfortable for the other person to share you can show that you are ready to receive them when they are ready to share. One last point on this step is if you are feeling like sharing a guess with them of how they are feeling if you sense they are struggling for the words because obviously it can be difficult that is 100% ok.  Just be super conscious about what you are asking and how you are asking it. The best way to ask to offer assistance is to frame it as a guess. And more over on that to show you are ok with them being just where they are at, even ask first if they are ok with you offering a guess of what they are feeling. Honestly 90% of the time I have tried this method of helping connect with peoples feelings they do say yes to allowing me to guess and when I do guess sometimes it is spot on, or sometimes it maybe way off, but most of the time it helps the individual look at their situation from a different angle or gives them some more time and space to think about how they are actually feeling and then will continue to share more about how they are really feeling.

Step number 4, further understanding

If everything has gone well up until this point it is really important to understand WHY this person feels this way.  Not actually for you to understand why, lets just make that clear right now. Your role in this moment is to help them understand why.  Feelings in our gut or anywhere else are signals telling us something and often time directing us to something important in our life. These important things can be called values or needs.  Whenever we are not in alignment with our values or we have needs that are not being met or body gives us a feeling so we can notice and then do something about it. Or at least honor it and do our best to keep moving forward.  Think about a stomach pain when you haven't eaten for a few hours. This is your body clearly telling you that you are hungry and need to eat soon. It doesn't do your body any good to ignore this feeling because it will just get worse until you eventually can not go without eating any longer and at that point your brain is hardly functioning from lack of glucose and other vital nutrition to make good decisions.  So it is best to acknowledge the feeling and understand the “problem” so then you can make and informed decisions. This is the same thing with emotions in my opinion. You might not be able to fix the problem by just talking about it and having someone listen emphatically but you can build a much better awareness about what is bothering you thus better equipping you to move through you day and make better choices to ultimately help you feel better in the long run.

Step 5, Acceptance

Like any spiritual practice will teach you acceptance is the name of the game.  If you are resistant to whatever is you will just perpetuate it. What you resist, will persist.  So now you have a good idea of what this person is going through. You might not be able to relate but at some level you are able to feel much more compassionate knowing that they are dealing with a struggle and they will probably continue dealing with it for a while.  You are not here to fix anyone. The main thing is just listening and being there for them while they go through it. Just trusting that they will figure it out is the only way to go. The more you “try to help” the more distance you create in the sense you are judging them for needing help.  Trust they have this, be there for them when they seem like they could use someone to talk to and you have the space within yourself to lend and ear. And just remember to love yourself and this person through the process. We are all dealing with a lot all the time and if we are coping well, well then we may have the space in our life to offer some assistance to another and that's a beautiful thing.  Just remember, this process start with yourself being in a stable grounded place that is rooted deep in trust and presence. We can only offer to others what we have for ourselves.

So wrapping up everything I want to offer or remind you about is this.  We have a short time on this planet together as far as we know. We are better able to deal with the stresses of life when we have good people around us we can lean on and it feels really good when we can do that for others as well.  To be really good at that process we need to understand what empathy is and how best we can really use it in an effective way with care for ourselves and others. And that is process start with knowing where we are are and how patient we can be with ourselves and others because the main piece is to be able to listen without being reactive, offer good questions that lead to more curiosity of the individuals experience and continue to help connect the feelings experience with that is important to that person in their life.  Good luck everyone and I love you all.