Empathy – A desirable attribute
Before defining this special communication skill let us clear up a common misunderstanding. Empathy is not the same as sympathy. A person who gives sympathy is certainly using empathy to tune themselves into the feelings of others, but sympathy that they actually share the same feelings – this is not the case with empathy.
EMPATHY is the ability to put yourself into the other person’s shoes and see things from their point of view. It is the ability to see, hear or recognise the emotions and feelings in others without necessarily agreeing with them.You do not have to accept their biased point of view. You need not agree with their prejudices nor do they have to agree with yours.
However you do need to be able to recognise the existence of their biased outlook and to exercise special communication skills to get your message through this barrier. This is what empathy does.
Empathy also works just as well in less difficult cases, where feelings are not so much involved. It can be used when two people are having trouble communicating clearly because they fail to recognise that each one sees the world differently. For example, Bills on the phone to Helen – “I’m too busy for our meeting this afternoon. Come into my office first thing in the morning and I’ll see you then.” The next day Bill arrives at his usual time of 8:30 am to be met by a frustrated Helen who has been waiting since 7:00 am.
Where did the message go wrong? To an observer who lacks empathy this could appear as a simple coding problem – because “first thing in the morning” was coded differently by two people. There was also an assumption involved. Bill assumed that “everyone knew” he came to work at 8:30 am every day. At the heart of the problem there was certainly a lack of empathy. Neither communicator could “see” the message as the other person saw it.
Empathy is often referred to as the ability to “sit in the receivers chair”. It is a skill that can be acquired quite easily, and those who use it are always ahead as communicators because they have a better chance of predicting when misunderstandings will occur. They are also better equipped to avoid disagreements and many other communication difficulties.
If Bill had used empathy in the case above, he would have realized that Helen started work at 7:00 am. He could have then changed his message to “as soon as I get in tomorrow morning”. Knowing that mornings are usually a busy time for Helen he could’ve used empathy even more effectively by adding “That’s usually a busy time of the morning for you. I’ll let you know when I arrive and you can come up then.”
Two Way Empathy
The more two people who communicate regularly can use empathy, the more they develop a sense of mutual trust and openness which in turn helps lessen other barriers in communication. Empathy exercised by both sender and receiver makes for far better communication and this may be the ideal we need to aim for.