“I’m in pain,” she cried.
“No one’s helping, or even listening to me!”
I was assessing a patient with chronic pain, severely debilitated by her condition and struggling to even move.
She had come to physiotherapy after being bounced around numerous departments.
Reading back through her extensive notes, I could see that her lifestyle likely wasn’t helping her condition or perception of pain.
But rather than diving straight into to issuing advice, I knew I needed to build rapport, largely by empathising with her current situation, before building towards a positive intervention.
One of the highest ROI skills to develop in life is empathy.
I say this not from a financial, but an emotional wealth perspective.
As humans, we’re social creatures who’ve learnt to work together over hundreds of thousands of years.
By developing the means to cooperate through language, we formed ever-larger groups, becoming the dominant creature on Earth.
As our societies flourished, we spread across the globe and through specialisation, discovered the advancements which we enjoy today.
And it was all made possible by honing our communication skills, of which a core component is empathy.
You see, it’s impossible to operate in large groups or even one-on-one unless we either have a shared belief system or can interact with a deep degree of understanding.
I was fortunate in my work as a physiotherapist (before changing career) to interact with people from diverse backgrounds and learn how to best communicate, often in delicate healthcare situations.
Through this experience, I saw first-hand the benefit of being able to put ourselves in the place of another person to share their perspective, both to avoid conflict and build relations.
So if you’re wondering how to express empathy and initiate this process, let’s take a look.
How to express empathy
It’s incredible how far simply staying silent can get you.
We have two ears and one mouth for a reason, which is strange considering how most people enjoy talking about themselves excessively.
It’s impossible to truly understand another perspective if you’re dominating a conversation.
By allowing another person the space to open up, you enhance your understanding of their worldview and identify any overlap with your own.
Remaining mute doesn’t work either, however, and questions must be asked to uncover additional information.
Displaying genuine curiosity about another individual’s thoughts, feelings and interests not only improves the conversational exchange, but also helps you empathise with their position.
It’s easy to prejudge someone we disagree with before discovering their deeper reasons and motivations.
Ask open ended questions and actively absorb the answers.
Find common ground
Learning how to express empathy is difficult when you disagree with alternate opinions.
In our hyper-connected world, politics and social issues easily polarise, for example.
Therefore it’s essential to use your question and answer interactions to uncover new angles and areas of common interest.
Rather than approach an subject of potential conflict head on, start by identifying mutual areas of agreement.
Vocalise shared views and build a solid base before tackling more challenging material.
Each of us has forged our beliefs and opinions over a substantial time period.
Having those foundations shaken in a short interaction isn’t pleasant.
Empathy is predicated on sympathising with another set of thoughts and beliefs, however different from your own they may be.
Many of us may struggle to exhibit empathy when we find another opinion particularly egregious.
I won’t lie; such situations are challenging.
However, you can still reframe the situation, empathising with the person and not their beliefs, assuming that everyone is merely a product of their environment, doing their best with what they’ve been given.
Even if you disagree with another person, confronting them is often the last effective approach.
Initiating an attack simply encourages an equal and opposite reaction.
As soon as someone feels criticised, they lash out, jeopardising any potential for constructive dialogue.
Training yourself to see the best in another person is primary part of developing empathy.
When you finally realise that it’s unnecessary to be right all the time or win every argument, it’s a huge psychological relief.
You can simply allow others to hold opposing thoughts and enjoy exploring overlapping areas of interest.
If you’re wondering how to express empathy, understanding the importance of being present is imperative.
In a world full of distraction, it’s rare that we give one another our undivided attention.
Checking our phone during conversations is just one depressingly common phenomenon that disrupts many meaningful exchanges.
To truly understand another person and their perspective requires your full concentration and awareness.
This type of mindful approach to communication determines the quality of your interactions and by proxy, the strength of your relationships.
Make friends and build relationships
Empathetic people are in high demand.
After all, who would you rather associate with – a confrontational individual who constantly disregards your thoughts and opinions or someone who genuinely attempts to sympathise with your worldview?
Working on our empathy skills not only improves our closest relationships but allows us to effortlessly develop new connections.
On a macro scale, taking the time to truly understand each other can help bring those at either end of the spectrum closer together.