Empathy is More than Caring

Most of us would claim we lead with empathy and yet not feeling respected or cared about remains a common concern everywhere. It’s as if we are not getting enough of it. Empathy fosters a sense of being known and cared about. Researchers Edward Deci and Rich Ryan reference this experience as Connectedness in their studies of Self Determination Theory. Connectedness, or more commonly referenced as Belonging, is the foundation to the experience of empathy.

I have empathy when I care about what you are thinking and feeling, right? Close, but it’s not quite enough. Have you heard the expression, “Love isn’t love unless you give it away”? Caring about others and what they are feeling isn’t enough unless you somehow convey that caring and the other person experiences or receives that caring. So now you are probably thinking, this empathy thing is kind of hard.

Empathy is a learned skill that develops over time. The first part of it, just noticing and caring about someone else’s experience, is just the first part. It’s the part we see young children do when they let us know a classmate is sad. They just notice and care. Some of us stop there. We notice. We care. And we’re done. While this is incredibly valuable, there are other vital steps to empathy.

Empathy is also about being intentional to really get to know who the other person is beneath the surface. We glean a lot through experiences and watching but there is no replacement for curious questions. And when we ask the curious question to learn more, we must use body language that says we want the answer: eye contact, slight tilt to the head, a smile or a reflective frown. And a powerful phrase in response to what you hear: “tell me more”. Empathy conveys, “I see you. I hear you. I want to know you.”

Another element of conveying empathy is demonstrating respect. Again, body language speaks volumes, as well as tone of voice. What tone of voice sends a signal that someone else cares? How often are you intentional to show you care by the tone of voice you choose? When we give respect, we are not evaluating or judging. I believe when we truly respect someone, we allow them the space to be themselves. What does this look like? It looks like feeling joy and appreciation for the other person. It means believing they are doing the best they can with the skills they have. It means trusting that all behavior is purposeful and even behavior we don’t like is trying to convey something deeper. Respect believes we are all resourceful, creative and whole.

Empathy is not sympathy (feeling sorry for) and it is not all that useful unless you give it away. Be mindful and notice how you share empathy. Better yet, ask those around you what they notice about how you express empathy. Remember, it is a skill that we develop over time. The more often we practice sharing empathy with others, the more we will co-create the community we all strive for.

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