Empathy: The Heart of Emotional Intelligence

“Well for God’s sake, I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings!“ That was the husband‘s surly-toned response when I asked him to empathize with his wife whose feelings had been hurt because he missed an opportunity to support her in front of their children.

To his response, I explained that we were not addressing his intentions at the moment, but I would like for him to empathize with her. His response was, “Well maybe she’s just being overly sensitive.” OUCH!

I asked him if he knew what empathy meant. He shrugged his shoulders and said, “Maybe I don’t?” Her tears confirmed that his empathy for her was lacking.

This scene occurs in my office dozens of times weekly. And it’s not just men who have trouble empathizing. Many women have the same struggle. And I am amazed at how many of my teenagers and young adults struggle with experiencing and expressing empathy.

Research indicates that empathy has taken a dive over the past 20 years, with the past 10 years being the most dramatic decline. Hmmmm … I wonder if there is any connection between the lack of empathy and the current social and emotional climate?

What is empathy? Some of the definitions are:

  • The ability to sense intellectually and emotionally the emotions, feelings, and reactions that another person is experiencing and to communicate that understanding to the person effectively.
  • The ability to identify with or understand the perspective, experiences, or motivations of another individual or to comprehend and share another individual’s emotional state.
  • The art of stepping imaginatively into the shoes of another person, understanding their feelings and perspectives, and using that understanding to guide your actions.
  • The intellectual and emotional awareness and understanding of another person’s thoughts, feelings, and behavior, even those that are distressing and disturbing.

Research indicates that the mirroring neurons present in the brains of both males and females make us all capable of empathizing. Those incapable of experiencing empathy are few. Mainly sociopaths, who researchers indicate, lack mirroring neurons.

Anyone else can learn to empathize. Those who especially struggle with empathy include narcissists, those with Asperger’s, ADD/ADHD, and those with low emotional intelligence.  Although there are environmental effects upon our ability to empathize, anyone (except sociopaths) can improve their ability to experience and express empathy.

When I work with couples and help them learn to empathize with one another, I get a common comment in response. “You should teach a course on empathy, and tell us how we can learn to be more empathetic.“

I am working on that course now, but I thought I could share with you some of the things that you could do to improve your ability to experience and share empathy.

There are many great reasons to increase our empathy. Here are a few of the benefits that research has shown for those who have high levels of empathy:

  • It increases intimacy in relationships
  • It creates safety
  • It increases the release of oxytocin in both the person empathizing and the person receiving empathy
  • It reduces depression and anxiety
  • It reduces symptom of ADD/ADHD
  • It increases productivity
  • It reduces stress
  • It improves our immune system
  • It makes us more resourceful and more resilient

Whether you are slightly empathetic or extremely empathetic, there’s always room for us to improve. I believe that one of the GREATEST REASON to improve our empathy is that it has the power to transform relationships to extraordinary. No matter what shape the relationship is in currently, adding consistent empathy will make massive improvements.

In addition, it is the key component of emotional intelligence!

This is not only true for marriage and intimate relationships, but also with children, adult children, co-workers, etc. So what can you do to begin to improve your ability to empathize? Here are some of the steps I’m working on for my course:

1. Walk a mile in their shoes (moccasins).

This comes from a poem written in 1895 By Mary Lathrap.  I think reviewing a few of the paragraphs from the very long poem will help us in understanding the importance of practicing this to improve and increase our empathy.

Pray, don’t find fault with the man that limps,

Or stumbles along the road.

Unless you have worn the moccasins, he wears,

Or stumbled beneath the same load.

There may be tears in his soles that hurt

Though hidden away from view.

The burden he bears placed on your back

May cause you to stumble and fall, too.

Just walk a mile in his moccasins

Before you abuse, criticize and accuse.

If just for one hour, you could find a way

To see through his eyes, instead of your own muse.

I believe you’d be surprised to see

That you’ve been blind and narrow minded, even unkind.

There are people on reservations and in the ghettos

Who have so little hope, and too much worry on their minds.

Remember to walk a mile in his moccasins

And remember the lessons of humanity taught to you by your elders.

We will be known forever by the tracks we leave

In other people’s lives, our kindnesses and generosity.

Take the time to walk a mile in his moccasins.

So what does this have to do with empathy? EVERYTHING! In order to be empathetic, we must step out of our own world for a moment, and do our best to step into the other person’s world.

Do your very best when spending time with someone to step out of your world, out of your responses, out of your opinions, and dive into their world. Many of the steps below will help with accomplishing this.

2. Practice validation.

Validation can be done with a nod, with a smile, or with sentences such as:

  • “I think I understand“
  • “That makes sense“
  • Other similar statements.

If you want to understand their world, they will only feel safe sharing their world with you when you first validate it.

Many people have trouble validating, because they are afraid it implies agreement or approval. If I had to agree or approve of what my clients share about their world, I would never know about their world.

What do I mean when I speak of “their world”? Their thoughts, their feelings, their perceptions, their experiences.

Most of us want to intervene and correct them before we ever know enough about their world. Without understanding their world, it is almost impossible to empathize. Rarely are such interventions effective until we have enough of a sense of their model of the world.

Recently, I had a mother and her young adult son in my office. He was less than a paragraph into stating his dilemma about the future before she interrupted with, “Dr. Neecie, just tell him his plan makes no sense.“ I smiled at her and said, “Perhaps you are correct, but let me understand a little bit more from him.“ He had spoken no more than 3 more sentences when she interrupted with: “We don’t have all day here, and we need to get this straightened out!”

As you can imagine, he clammed up. I asked her if she would just give me 15 uninterrupted moments with him to understand his viewpoint and where he was coming from.

Within 10 minutes, his tone and belligerence had softened ,and I asked him a key question: “What makes you believe that you can’t succeed in college?“ His eyes reddened and his chin slightly quivered as he half muttered, “Because they want me to be an engineer like my dad, and I don’t like math, and I want to be in the performing arts.“

It was a tender moment for both mom and son. Those words had never been spoken between them. We only got there because I was listening to his world, and I heard “fear of failure” in college in most everything he said. 

I didn’t have to tell him that spending a year backpacking in Europe was a foolish idea (as his mom desired). Because I understood that the trip was only to avoid pressure he felt to become an engineer. In the next 15 minutes, he revealed his dream to attend Juilliard, and a new plan emerged.

Validate, so that they are safe enough to share their world.

3. Make eye contact.

I cannot tell you how absolutely crucial eye contact is for empathy. The old proverb that says “the eyes are the window to the soul” is packed with wisdom. When you look into someone’s eyes and see how their eyes move and change as they speak, you will have an amazing heads up on someone’s experience, and on their world.

Eye contact also prevents you from glancing at your cell phone, or checking out the score on the sports news.

Early in my practice, I saw an amazing couple. The husband had been a leader in the bar association in two states. Obviously he was always on the go, reviewing cases and educating himself.

At the end of their first visit, I gave them a daily assignment to turn off the television, to turn off the ringer on their phones, and to spend 15 minutes together, sharing their days.

In their first attempt, she had gone into their living area while he was reading the Wall Street Journal. She asked him if it was a good time to spend their 15 minutes together, and he affirmed it was. He tossed the Wall street journal to the bottom shelf of the coffee table, however it had a glass top, and he had tossed it facing her on the other side of the coffee table. Pretty soon he was almost standing on his head attempting to complete the article he had been reading.

When they arrived at the second session, he confessed, “I failed the first day of our assignment!”

Research has shown that 7 to 10 minutes of eye contact releases mirroring neurons which promote empathy, as well as large amounts of endorphins and oxytocin. These are all the chemicals that “feel good“ and create connection, bonding and understanding.

Even though there are cultural differences in the meaning and perception of eye contact, cross cultural research shows the same neurochemical releases, regardless of cultural differences.

It may difficult in the beginning, but practice eye contact, looking within their soul.

4. Improve your body language.

Many times we learn posture habits that do not promote empathy. Arms crossed, legs crossed, slumped down, leaning back. Those are just a few.

But certainly waving your arm to dismiss something someone is saying is a powerful message. As is eye rolling, fidgeting, picking your teeth, moans and disgusted sighs.

Become self-aware. Practice uncrossing your arms and leaning forward. Practice breathing normally. And maintaining eye contact will help you avoid rolling your eyes.

5. Leave your toolbox at home.

Many people mistake their attempt at “fixing things“ or “solving problems“ as empathy. The truth is, most people will arrive at their own solutions if they feel empathy from someone.

Recently at church, I was speaking to a mother of several young adult children. She was telling me that the older they get, the less they come to her when they experience challenges. I told her that some of that could be a part of the maturation process, but I invited her to share more.

After she gave me a few examples, I noted that in each example, before she responded to them, she gave her disclaimer which was: “I know you’re grown now, and I don’t want to interfere, but…“

I asked her why she gave the disclaimer. She reported they had all complained about her always telling them what to do.

I assured her that it is the heart of every parent to want to fix situations for their kids, even when they are adults. I suggested that she listen a bit longer and understand the situation a bit further, and then once she truly understood, to ask if they would be open for feedback.

She responded with this: “Oh Em Gee! I have the same ‘fix it’ disease my husband has. Will this work for both of us?” I told her perhaps it was worth a try.

This past Sunday, she rushed up to me after church and reported, “It worked! It worked! For both of us!”

Leave your toolbox at home, or if you are at home, leave it in the garage. If you are in the garage … well, hide it somewhere!

6. Ask questions in order to fully understand.

One of the best ways to inspire empathy in yourself is if you refrain from responding too soon by asking questions. Questions make a huge statement that you are doing your best to step into their world.

Ask your questions one at a time, instead of rapid-fire. Recently when I was doing a crisis intervention, a father began rapid firing questions at his daughter, “What were you thinking? What did you think was going to happen if you did that? So now you think I should solve the problem for you? When comes the time when you grow up and handle your own messes? And why on earth would I want to help you right now?“

I asked him if he really expected her to remember all of those questions, and we all chuckled. Clearly, he was not expecting answers. Then I invited him to empathize. He asked, “Why on earth would I empathize when I think this is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard?”

I asked him to take a moment and think of three questions that would help him understand her situation better. Then to ask one, to change his posture and body language, to make eye contact, and then to remain silent.

He thought for a moment, complied with the instructions, and asked, “What were you hoping to get out of all of that?“ While a tear was running down her cheek, she responded, “You know what, daddy? I think I just wanted your attention.“

Empathy sprang forth, and he got up from his chair and knelt beside hers, wiped away her tear, and held her.

All the result of one question, sincerely posed to increase understanding. There’s power in sincere, thought-out questions.

7. Trade in reactivity for curiosity.

We live in a world where we all tend to react. Reaction carries the sense that we are entitled as judges, and are better than the other person. Quite the opposite of empathy.

If we could all just zip up our reactivity, and instead, become curious, empathy would be much more available. 

I loved the curiosity of my son when he was young. He was curious about God, curious about how miracles happened, curious about where tears came from? And if they came from our heart, how did they get pumped up to our eyes? He was curious about why we eat cows but we don’t eat horses. (I put a stop to that curiosity really quickly because I didn’t want him having any ideas about our horses!)

Maybe it’s one of the reasons that Jesus said that we should come as little children. Perhaps he was suggesting that we get some of our curiosity back. Be curious about else’s life, about their experience.

It will keep you from reacting, and assist you in understanding, a key component of empathy.

8. Train your heart to feel! 

I’d like to share a quote from Melinda Gates, who gave the Commencement speech to graduating students at Stanford University in 2014.  “In the course of your lives, without any plan on your part, you’ll come to see suffering that will break your heart.  When it happens, and it will, don’t turn away from it; turn toward it. That is the moment when change is born.” 

She could have easily said that it’s the moment when empathy is born!

Let me clarify: feeling because they are hurting is much different than taking on their hurt. I suggest this … take it on just long enough to taste it, then care (empathize) about what they are feeling and experiencing.

It is okay to feel when people are hurting (or when they are joyful, or afraid, or feeling embarrassed, ashamed or excited). Feel what they feel for just a moment, and then it is much easier to empathize with them.

Be very aware, as lifeguards must be, that one person needs to remain calm in order to save someone who is drowning. And that one person is the lifeguard. I always remember my lifeguard training when I see someone drowning in emotion. I want to understand and care, but if I allow them to drown me, I can be of no help to them.

In my life-guarding career, I only had one true emergency. I swam out close to the young man, and I told him I could save him, but only if he would roll over and float on his back. At first he kept fighting the water furiously. I kept speaking calmly to him, out of his reach. I asked him a few questions, and then he finally laid back and I pulled him to shore.

I know that if I take on everyone’s feelings in my office, we will just all be drowned at the end of the day. I taste them, then I calm myself, and allow them to talk me through their experience, as I seek to understand and care.

It is okay to feel. If you have blocked your feelings, you will struggle to have empathy. There is literally a region in our brains (the right supramarginal gyrus) that helps us distinguish our feelings from other’s feelings. Curiosity ignites that region. If you remain calm, and become curious, not only can you get a taste of what they are feeling, but you can also separate their feelings from your own experience.

Interestingly enough, that region of the brain also turns our feeling antennae on or off. If yours is turned off, you will have little to no empathy.

How do you turn it on? All of the steps above will help in turning up the dial on feelings.

We all need empathy. Giving empathy is as beneficial to the giver as to the receiver, and sometimes more so.

I know you care, because all of my readers do. I often give my clients the assignment that I’d like to challenge you with today:

For the next 30 days, find one person daily to practice empathizing. If appropriate, tell them what you are doing, and inquire if they felt empathized with. Ask them how you could do better. They will appreciate your efforts, and admire you for asking.

How do we change the world? One heart at a time! How do we change a heart? With empathy!

Are you in? I know you are because you are a World Changer!