Friday, July 25, 2008

Empathy - More Than Just a Word

I have recently had the opportunity to present programs on providing extraordinary customer service during tough economic times to several different clients. This program focuses on the "words that matter" when communicating with clients and customers. One of the tools I share during this program has value beyond simply customer service. It is a tool that can help us build, maintain, and even repair relationships of all kinds.

The tool that I am referencing is empathy. Most of us understand empathy to be the ability to project ourselves into the reality (and feelings) of others. In other words, to be able to understand (logically and emotionally) things from another's perspective. Empathetic communication is our ability to share that understanding with the other party. From my experience, many of us are able to feel empathetic towards another person. William James, who many consider to be the father of modern era psychology, teaches us that the deepest need of the human soul is to be understood. However, we can sometimes struggle when trying to communicate that empathy to another person in a way that they do, indeed, feel that we understand.

Here are a few tips to help you effectively communicate empathy:

1. Ditch the phrase I understand or minimize your dependence upon it. While it is perfectly acceptable to use I understand in average conversations, if you are looking to communicate that you really do understand (empathize), it is better to not rely upon trite, over-used, and sometimes shallow phrases. It would be better to say something that reflects the emotion the other person is experiencing. For example, a savvy communicator might say wow - that sounds very frustrating or this must be very frustrating for you. When you reflect back to the person you are communicating with the emotion they are expressing, they are far more likely to feel understood which is the true goal of empathy.

2. Avoid saying I know just how you feel. While you may, indeed, believe you know just how someone feels, rarely does this phrase have the intended effect. Typically, it will elicit the exact opposite - people will feel that all of a sudden the conversation has shifted from a focus on them to a focus on you. Besides, many people use the phrase I know just how you feel as a springboard to start talking about themselves and tell their story. While communicating to someone that you have had similar experiences and can identify with what they are going through is powerful, words matter and it would be better to communicate by allowing them to completely tell their story, ask probing questions, and when they have had the opportunity to thoroughly express themselves you can try something along the lines of - My heart goes out to you. When I went through something I felt very confused and sad. It sounds like you feel the same way. Obviously, this is simply an example. However, the principle behind the example is to reflect the emotions they are expressing without making it about you. Again, the goal of empathetic communication is met.

3. Ask lots of open-ended questions. Questions signal to your conversational partner that you are interested and involved in what he or she is expressing. By asking open-ended (non-leading and non-judgemental) questions, you allow people the opportunity to communicate and sometimes that is all it takes to make them feel understood.

4. Do not say you shouldn't feel that way. While sometimes this phrase is well intended - perhaps we are trying to let someone know that they are taking something personally when there is an alternative explanation - the impact this can have is devastating. The moment we tell someone they shouldn't feel the way they are feeling, we completely invalidate them. Besides, it never works. I've never heard someone respond with ok, I won't. It is more common for people to become defensive and frustrated, which is the complete opposite of empathetic communication.

Empathy is more than just a word. It is a mind-set. By adapting the mind-set that our goal is to communicate understanding, not simply pay lip service to it we can choose our words wisely and communicate empathy with confidence.

For more tools and techniques on communicating with confidence, visit the resource store at to order Pamela's popular program Communicate With Confidence. Pamela Jett, CSP is a communication expert, speaker, and author who believes that words matter. For more information on bringing Pamela to your organization or event call Aimee at 855.726.5388 or visit

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