One thing is for sure. We all suffer.
If you think that others sail through life without the agony of grief and illness, the tragedy of heart break or loneliness then you are mistaken. This is just a condition of life. When times are good, conflict doesn’t feature. It usually comes out of difficult times, when our needs are not being met in some way.
When you empathise with somebody, you recognise their experience without judging it, changing it or turning away from it. When you feel empathy from somebody, this is what they might display:
- Active listening. They allow you to speak and encourage you to open up about your emotions and experiences. They may use verbal queues or words to do this, summarise what you say or paraphrase it.
- Their response is non-judgmental. They will simply allow you to express what needs to be said.
- If and when you feel comfortable, they could hug you or touch your arm in a reassuring way.
Compassion is also a feature of empathy. It’s a recognition that we all suffer and no matter how difficult it is to sit with somebody whilst they suffer, the listener will be present and open to it.
The most profound expression of empathy came from a friend of mine who had lost his wife some years ago. When my father passed away and I was struggling with my feelings of loss, he didn’t say much, he just listened and hugged me. All he could say to me was, “it gets easier”. Not everyone finds death or cancer easy to face and I spent a lot of time dividing my friends and family into those who could handle my experience and those who couldn’t.
Why Practice Empathy and Compassion?
Empathy and compassion are what connects us emotionally to others. For some reason, we feel a need to talk about our suffering and when somebody truly listens to you without diminishing it, we feel acknowledged and understood. Suffering, such as grief, becomes a part of who we are and maybe in talking about it, what we are really doing is declaring our new identity.
For those of us who can recognise it, it’s a fundamentally human experience. The more I work on understanding my own suffering and emotions and staying with somebody through their difficulties, the more fulfilled and resilient I feel.
Empathy and compassion are practices that develop with time. It takes a great deal of strength to be with somebody in pain and it’s no wonder that we are not all equipped to express it adequately. Empathy can transform conflict into mutual understanding if done correctly. It requires honesty and an acceptance of your own emotions and prejudices before you can exercise it towards a person with whom you are in conflict.
I know how hard that is. There are so many ways that our anger, humiliation, hurt and exasperation can stop us from forgiving the other person. It’s why we stop seeing them as people with needs and start seeing them as the enemy. You may need some time too deal with your own emotions before you take that step.
Here are some crucial phrases for your empathy tool kit:
- I can see that you are upset.
- It must be hard be for you.
- This is a really challenging time for you.
- I am sorry for your loss.
- It’s understandable that you would feel disappointed by this.
- The sadness you must feel isn’t easy to put into words.
- From what you have said, it is clear why you’d be angry about that.
- I’m sorry for the suffering I caused you.
- I apologise for my actions.
- Of course, you feel irritated, angry, sad etc.
- So, you feel aggrieved that you were treated in this way.
- Your anger/ sadness/ unhappiness etc makes total sense to me.
- You’re stuck in a tricky situation here and I see why you feel ….
- I feel sad to hear that you experienced this.
- It seems so unfair that you went through this.
- I wish I could do something to help you.
- What can I do to help you?
- Would you like a hug?
- How can I make things better for you?
- If you want to cry, I will sit with you and hold your hand.
- I will sit with you and listen to your fears.
- You don’t have to justify why you did what you did.
- You don’t have to justify or explain how you feel. It makes sense.
- If you don’t want to talk, it’s ok, I’ll just sit with you.
- I can’t imagine how hard this is for you.
- Thank you for telling me this.
- What has this been like for you?
- How are you feeling about it?
- I love you, no matter what.
- I am proud of you.
- As I listen to you, it makes me feel …
- I am here for you, no matter what.
Those phrases are not all about empathy alone and some of them are intended to encourage trust and honesty so that the person speaking feels more comfortable.
Don’t forget your own emotions in this conflict and it is perfectly acceptable for you to ask the other person to listen to how you see the problem, what you felt and why it’s important to you to find a resolution. That might look something like this:
“I have listened to you and I can see that you are hurt by what happened. I also felt angry and hurt because I interpreted what happened to mean that you no longer want a relationship with me. I want us to mend our relationship and move on which is why I want to find a resolution to this that we are both happy with.”
Empathy is mostly about actions. An apology is a good example of this as it requires changing one’s behaviour in recognition of a person’s suffering.
None of this can be faked. If your actions don’t correspond with your words and it is clear that you are not listening or taking in what the other person is saying, this can seriously undermine any constructive conversation intended to resolve conflict.
Can you think of anymore? Let me know by leaving a comment!