Increasing Connection Through Empathy
When you think of your closest friends, most intimate relationships, or most supportive colleague, what do they have in common? At the top of your list is likely their ability to support you. One of the most important interpersonal skills we can develop in all relationships, including the one we have with ourselves, is empathy.
Often, fear of seeming weak, burnout, personal struggles, trauma or other mental health issues can get in the way of empathy. Other barriers could include personalty, lack of interpersonal effectiveness skills, and not being modeled how to empathize. But whether you are looking to improve your relationship with self or others, empathy is vital!
The definition of empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Here are some basic steps to improve your empathy:
Imagine. Simply put, imagine you are walking in someone else’s shoes. What would that be like? What challenges are they facing? What emotions would it bring up? How do you picture yourself in that situation, and what do you imagine it’s like?
Reflect. Reflect back to the person what you are hearing/seeing from them. This might include showing you care through nonverbal communication (rubbing someone’s back or giving a hug if they are comfortable with physical touch, showing compassion or concern through your facial expression), as well as reiterating the hardship the person is facing. Some baseline examples include, “I can see this has been really hard for you; I hear in your voice how disappointed you are; It sounds like all of this has been building and it feels really overwhelming right now.” Your goal is to REFLECT the experience and the emotion you hear from the person you wish to support. You can make these reflections more personal based on the details the listener shares with you. The more empathy you show by really listening and seeking to understand the experience of the other person, the more likely you will feel closeness and intimacy on both sides.
- Validate. In DBT (Dialectical Behavioral Therapy), we emphasize validating what is valid. Simple validation is showing interest by making eye contact, nodding your head, and saying things like: “That sounds really exhausting; what do you need right now?” Deep levels of empathy include validating based on a person’s history: “Of course being told what to do made you angry. You are an independent woman and it took a lot of self-growth for you to find your voice and practice assertiveness. This experience felt condescending.” You are giving the message I know you and I hear you. A similar massage is to validate by being radically genuine and owning your role in a conflict: “It makes sense that you are angry at me. I hurt you when I said I would call and I didn’t.”
These steps are powerful messages that communicate genuineness, support, honesty, and trust. The result of practicing these interpersonal skills is deeper levels of intimacy, vulnerability, and greater sense of connectedness and understanding.
Maggie Wilhelm is a Licensed Professional Counselor, specializing in working with women across the lifespan dealing with low self-esteem, relationship challenges, major life transitions, or trauma. Maggie’s work with clients is rooted in CBT, which she uses to help clients make sustainable life changes and better understand the connections between their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Maggie is also certified in Trauma-Focused CBT and brings knowledge of other evidence-based modalities, including Interpersonal Therapy and DBT, to her sessions with clients as well.
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