The most important skill worth discussing when it comes to communication.

For this article, I wanted to discuss something that has proved to have the most value to me in learning and often comes up though my work as a workplace rehabilitation consultant and as a former manager.

Whether you are interacting with colleagues, employees, claimants, or customers, being able to communicate effectively is vital and requires continuous development.

Having a solid grasp of how to communicate with empathy is a key component to achieving this goal. Distinguishing empathy from its lesser counterparts, apathy and sympathy, shares similar importance and can be sometimes overlooked.

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” — Harper Lee

Studies show us that empathy increases performance and engagement in the workforce. For instance, the authors of The State of Empathy in the Workplace (2018), reported that the majority of respondents, across all demographics surveyed, stated that empathy motivates workers, improves engagement, and increases productivity. Yet, another paper written by the Centre for Creative Leadership, estimated that less than 50% of the employees surveyed in their study considered their employer to be empathetic.

Through my own experience, I have heard empathy be referred to as “touchy-feely” and “fluffy stuff”. As empathy sits within a space of vulnerability, it is understandable why it may be viewed in such a way and is misrepresented as something unnecessary.

Empathy allows us to connect with those that we interact with in a manner that few other communication methods can match in scope and impact. Whether you are managing a team, working with a customer, talking to a friend, or assisting someone return to work, empathy has the ability to turn uncertainty into clarity, cynicism into trust, and move working relationships in a more positive direction.

The river and the canyon

When discussing how to communicate with empathy, I would previously provide an metaphor of an individual standing between two rivers. In this, the person is standing on a grassy bank over looking two winding rivers either side of them. They observe another person stranded in one of these rivers. The person is struggling, arms pounding on top of the water, trying to stay afloat.

The two rivers represent our capacity for emotion; one for your associate struggling to stay afloat under the weight of what they are experiencing, the other your own. In this, you are presented with three choices – stay on the river bank, jump into your own river, or consider what the person in the river is experiencing and act with this understanding.

The metaphor was accompanied by an enthusiastic, albeit poorly drawn, diagram and generated positive discussion. The content itself was taken from a video by Edward Nelson on his YouTube channel facilitatingchange. You can check out the video via this link.

As my understanding of communication, leadership, and counselling techniques have continued to developed over time, I have needed to reconsider the appropriateness of describing empathy in this manner. I have concluded that although the river explains this topic in part, it is lacking in a number of areas.

Given this, I have decided that a better metaphor is to consider that you are observing a person that has fallen and is trapped in a canyon.

“… I remember thinking how awful it would be to fall, somehow survive, and become stuck in such a place”.

The inspiration for discussing empathy in this way came from a former colleague who travelled to the U.S in 2018. I recall him telling me about the highlights of the trip. At the top of this was his visit to the Grand Canyon. As he told me about the experience, I remember thinking how awful it would be to fall, somehow survive, and become stuck in such a place.

We will put the plausibility of surviving a fall into the Grand Canyon, and the fact that I was half listening to the story, aside for now.

To set the scene, we can imagine that you are standing on the edge of a cliff that gives way to a vast canyon. Along the inside wall of the canyon, you see an individual trapped on a ledge. They notice you atop the cliff, and they call for help.

The canyon represents the emotional turmoil that the individual is going through. The dark expanse in which they have currently found themselves facing. It could be that they are going through a difficult divorce, facing bankruptcy, having a mid-life crisis, facing a complex medical procedure, or are at threat of losing their job and financial security.

Whatever it may be, there appears to be little hope of rescue from their current predicament on their own terms.

Our choices as the observer

When responding to such a scenario we are faced with three choices.

The first choice, and it is a choice, is that of Apathy. We can peer over the edge of the cliff, see this person struggling, and do nothing. Even better, we could sit on the edge of the cliff, whip out the newspaper, and figure out what we are going to watch on the telly after dinner. We think to ourselves:

“They will sort it out themselves won’t they?”

“It can’t be that bad?”

“They are just overreacting”

“… I think I’ll watch My Kitchen Rules”

Apathy is the brushing aside of emotion, the lack of concern, or sometimes considered as amounting to a tough love approach.

To be clear, if you are placed in a situation where you need to support someone, taking the path of apathy is not helpful. It is not a mechanism for moving forward. It demonstrates a lack of care, giving way to mistrust and embitterment. It makes the future journey, whatever it may be, all the more difficult.

To see something, and do nothing, is hardly the path the betterment.

The second choice is that of Sympathy.

Using sympathy as the basis for our response in this scenario, we may look over the cliff edge, see our associate struggling in the darkness, and feel a sense of sadness at their situation. It must be awful to be in such a situation and we may communicate that:

“You are in a awful situation… it is just terrible”

“I know how you feel”

“I can see things are difficult, but try to look on the bright side”

Sympathy refers to a feeling of care or concern for someone, and is often associated with feelings of sorrow or pity. It is a surface level acknowledgement of the scenario they are faced with and the emotions that accompany this. It does not require someone to experience the emotion they are witness to — it is ‘feeling with them’ rather than ‘feeling for them’.

“… a sympathetic response may sound good in theory but are often little more than effortless clichés”.

Whilst sympathy has the potential to be a valuable trait in comparison to apathy, as it acknowledges an individual’s experience in part, it does not lead to substantial action on its own. In some instances, expressions of sympathy can lead to the person feeling that you are minimising what they are currently experiencing. It does not communicate understanding or build connection. Statements associated with a sympathetic response may sound good in theory but are often little more than effortless clichés.

Sympathy is something that can be incorrectly used without due consideration for what it represents. This can be as a result of us being conditioned to respond in such a way, having had similar things said to us in times of crisis, or that we mistake sympathy with that of our third choice.

Our third choice is that of Empathy. When taking this approach, we see our associate situated on the ledge and there are a number things that we might do.

Firstly, we need to listen — intently. Fight the urge to talk. We need to understand what the person is trying to communicate and the full extent of the current scenario. When listening, our attention needs to be wholly on the individual. There is nothing worse than having an important conversation with someone and it appears that they are half paying attention. Consider your body language, ask open questions, and seek clarity if you are uncertain regarding any details.

When listening, we must consider the perspective of the individual and what it would be like to be in their situation. What they are experiencing and what does this mean for how they currently view the world?

This is perspective taking and to do this effectively we must act with the understanding that their perception, their mindset, is their truth. Whatever they are experiencing on the ledge is seen through their lens, not our own.

“... by acknowledging their perspective, we can see the way in which they view the world and their beliefs attached to this. Whether we see things in the same way, or agree with their perspective, is irrelevant…”

Now, you may be thinking:

“If I see things from their perspective, does that mean that I agree with them?”

Stepping away from our metaphor, the understanding of an individual’s perspective is not a confirmation of whether we believe that they are right in thinking the way that they do. We aren’t agreeing with them. A person can form a view that is inaccurate, and stick with this view in the face of contradictory evidence. However, by acknowledging their perspective we can see the way in which they view the world and their beliefs attached to this. Whether we see things in the same way, or agree with their perspective, is irrelevant at this juncture.

In addition to considering the perspective of the individual, we need to act in a manner that is without judgement. We should avoid thoughts, and the communication of thoughts, which impose our judgement on the situation or how they found themselves here in the first place. Judgement and cynicism can be an easy trap to fall into and it isn’t difficult to start asking ourselves:

“How did they end up here?”

“I warned them that this would happen!”

“Didn’t they read the signs at the edge of the cliff?”

“Well, they only have themselves to blame!”

Some of these may be valid questions that one might ask in retrospect to prevent future misfortune; however, they are wholly unhelpful in the context of assisting the individual at this point in time.

Finally, we must recognise and understand the emotions that our associate is feeling at a deeper level than that of a sympathetic response. If our associate stranded on the ledge is fearful, part of us needs to comprehend this emotion and feel this with them. We need to understanding what it is like to feel fear and this can be done by considering instances that we have faced which are comparable.

Of importance regarding this step, you should avoid becoming swept up in your own experiences and emotions. Appropriate self-disclosure has a place in building rapport but it is unhelpful to turn this into a conversation that revolves around yourself.

Once we have understood the emotions of the individual we are interacting with, we need to convey this understanding. We need to be able to reflect what they are feeling to demonstrate that we are listening. This can be as simple as communicating:

“I understand that you feel scared and like there is no way out from your current situation”.

To communicate with empathy is to put ourselves in another’s shoes, convey our understanding of what this is like, and interact with them with this in mind.

Now that you have taken the perspective of the individual in front of you and you have communicated your understanding of the emotions they are experiencing, it is a reflex to attempt to solve the problem they are faced with. It is our nature to try and to improve our circumstance, and by extension, the circumstance of others.

“Ongoing action is more important than how you initially reply. It is an unreasonable notion that a single response can make anything thing truly better”.

There are some issues that are bought to our attention that we are able to resolve. However, we are often faced with problems where there is no immediate solution — and this is okay.

If we don’t have a solution to the problem at hand, it is much better to communicate this, thank them for sharing how they are feeling, and commit to working with the person. Ongoing action is more important than how you initially reply. It is an unreasonable notion that a single response can make anything difficult truly better.

Closing notes and key takeaways

It would be inaccurate to convey that a grasp of empathy is the cure-all to improving all interpersonal relationships. Life is rarely that simple.

Instead, empathy is an extremely important tool at our disposal and, if used correctly, has the ability to build trust and connectedness with those we interact with.

Some key points to remember:

  • Apathy is a lack of interest or care.
  • Sympathy is a feeling of care or concern for someone – this is a surface level acknowledgement.
  • Empathy is the ability to sense another’s emotions and imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling.

When being empathic, it is important to;

  • Listen – intently
  • Take the other persons perspective
  • Avoid judgment
  • Understand the emotions the person is feeling
  • Convey this understanding
  • Remember that you don’t have to have all of the answers

Resources:

  • The State of Empathy in the Workplace (2018) – here
  • Centre for Creative Leadership White Paper on Empathy – here
  • You can watch a fantastic video on this topic by Brené Brown – here

Rehabilitation Counsellor based in Tasmania.

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