Empathy Takes Practice

Empathy Takes Practice
August 2, 2016 Echo

by Co-Executive Director, Diana Ayala

Every time I hear the word empathy outside of my work environment I begin to pay close attention to that conversation. Since when did empathy become a trend? More people are talking about it; more people are being trained on empathy. Even when I called my phone company, I noticed that their representative was ‘giving me empathy’.

Only empathy is not something that you ‘do’ to another person –  it’s the ability to stay present and connected to the other person, and the ability to stay connected with another human being takes practice…empathy takes practice.

I recently attended a training for a room full of school counselors. The Echo trainer gave out a handout on empathy and asked the participants to pair up with someone else. They were instructed to take three minutes to share a challenge they’ve had during the week and for the other person to practice empathy and empathic listening. As I shared my challenge with my partner, I noticed that she immediately wanted to give me advice. Although her intentions were to be helpful, she was struggling with empathy. She kept looking at the handout where we clearly say What Empathy is Not:

Fix it “What will help is…”

Advice “I think you should…”

Interrogate “How did it happen?”

Console “It wasn’t your fault.”

Sympathize “You poor thing, I feel awful for you.”

Commiserate “He did that to you? The jerk!”

One-up “You should hear what happened to…”

The three minutes were up and I noticed my partner’s relief that it was time to switch. She spent her three minutes sharing that her challenge was to come to a training where we would be discussing being “mushy”. She didn’t think it was necessary for anyone to bring their personal feelings to work. She had voiced her opinion on the manner and co-workers would tease her about how ‘tough’ she was, and although it was done in a playful manner she didn’t like it. She told me “Don’t get me wrong, I want to be able to be more ‘friendly’, but part of me thinks that it is not necessary to do that at work.”

As she was sharing her challenge all I could think of was, “Oh man! How in the world am I going to give this woman empathy…” (notice that all of a sudden, I start to think it is something I give rather than staying connected) “…and I have to be good because I work here!” So after some quick self-empathy for the situation I found myself in, I said:

“Wow, it sounds like you came to work feeling a bit nervous about today’s training, is that true?” 

“Yes,” she replied.

“It sounds like maybe you were worried that your co-workers would be talking about you during the training and maybe all you want is to feel accepted for who you are by your co-workers?”

She nodded her head with a ‘yes’ and our time was up.

When the trainers asked if anyone wanted to share back how the exercise went, she quickly raised her hand and she said:

“I felt empathy! In three minutes I was able to feel empathy from someone whom I just met!”

Of course I was relieved! But nonetheless, I was reminded of how difficult it can be to stay connected with another human being and why practice is so necessary. Why don’t you try if for yourself? How long can you listen to someone without wanting to advise, console or offer comparisons to make them feel better? Check out author Brené Brown’s very amusing take on the subject in this great video on empathy.

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