Empathy: Stepping into Someone Else’s Truth

Empathy is often defined as the ability to appropriately perceive and relate to the thoughts, emotions, or experiences of others.

Empathy is a core factor in our work with students and teachers. It is the ability to be present and listen to another person’s process without trying to fix their problems, or offer advice, or quell our own discomfort with someone else’s pain.

Empathy is the antidote for feeling disconnection. By being empathetic, we may be uncomfortable by being pushed outside of our emotional comfort zone.

Empathy allows us to see someone else from a place of compassion and kindness. It creates a space for someone to be seen and acknowledged.

Expand your ability to really listen

Empathy necessitates a solid ability to be curious, listen and respect the other person. It requires our entire presence without distraction. Here are a few things to consider for empathetic listening:

  • Refrain from interrupting, except for clarification
  • Ask relevant and open-ended questions.
  • Offer silence. This gives the other person time to consider what they are thinking or other things they want to say.
  • Be non-judgmental
  • Be aware of your body language and posture. (I usually check to make sure I’m leaning in.)

Empathy allows us to really listen to someone, lessen our attachment to their process, and to do this without trying to influence or change the emotions that are present.

We never fully understand what someone is going through because we are not them, but that doesn’t mean we can’t show up and listen to what their life might be like in this moment. Many people have had terrible things happen, things that are far more significant than I’ve ever had, but this doesn’t mean I can’t hold space for them to share and to grow.

Empathy: What to avoid

When we are feeling upset or conflicted, we often just want to be heard. Most of the time, having someone listen to us as we articulate whatever is bothering us is enough to quell some of our anxiety and process through it. To practice empathy with vulnerability and authenticity, we must realize that we all struggle from time to time, and we all face the trials of being alive.

But there are a few things we should avoid when dealing empathetically with other people who are sharing their struggles.

Making dismissive statements

  • Telling the other person it’s going to be “okay” or “fine.” It may not ever be okay or fine.
  • Dismissive statements such as, “Well at least…” or “Be grateful it is not …” are not helpful and minimize the other person’s life experience.
  • Telling the other person you “understand.” You will only ever understand your own experience from your own unique point of view. You will never fully understand their particular experience of the struggle or pain that they have endured.

Arguing

Arguing quickly creates a dynamic where the other person suddenly shuts down or doesn’t feel safe. Arguing someone’s experience invalidates them and can feel judgmental. Recognize that what they are sharing is their own truth IN THIS MOMENT. It is not THE truth, it is a reflection of their own experience IN THIS MOMENT.

Fixing, Rescuing, Advising, and Projecting

We call these 4 things FRAPing (Fix, Rescue, Advise, Project). Please don’t FRAP.

I admit that I’m a FRAPing machine at heart. I love to fix people’s problems, rescue them from their pain, provide my sage advice, and project my own feelings onto their feelings. But I’ve learned not to do this. It’s not helpful in ANY situation. Not only is it disrespectful, but it’s rude and dismissive.

When you jump in to FIX, you take away the power of the other person to make their own choice how, or even if, to resolve the problem.

When you RESCUE the person, you want to soothe the hurt and ease the pain so that you don’t have to feel bad about what the other person is going through.

Giving ADVICE implied that you know more or better than the other person. What they really want is someone who will listen to them so that they can find their own solutions.

When you PROJECT and say something like “I know exactly how you feel. I felt the same way…” you are projecting your feelings onto them. They may not feel the same way at all. And your feelings don’t matter in the moment.

FRAPing takes away the power of the other person to find their own way forward and tap into their own resilience.

Many people fall into the trap of trying to make someone feel better by offering advice and problem-solving as a way to deal with our own feelings of powerlessness to help their situation. It’s important not to slip into this mode — that is, it’s important to recognize our OWN emotions and deal with them separately from the emotions the other person is sharing.

The value of empathy

Empathy creates a foundation for connection; a bridge to the other person. It allows us to see someone else from a place of compassion and kindness, and provides a space for them to be seen and acknowledged.

Empathy builds trust and understanding and deepens intimacy. It guides us as we move through difficult times and challenging conversations.

Recognizing that all of us are doing the best we can with what we know is one of the critical components of empathy. Our feelings may be about different things for various reasons, but emotions are universal experiences.

 

CLRS Approach

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All the basics of CLRS and FRAP explained.
Larry Levenson
Larry Levenson
Larry Levenson is the founder of Circle Dynamics Group and a national leader in training educators in emotional intelligence and the use of genuine listening and curiosity in conversations with students. He has a Master's degree in Human Development.

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