How to actually empathize

Three ways to translate “empathy” into concrete actions

“We need to have more empathy for each other in the workplace!” In my work with tech companies and startups, I hear statements like this all the time. But even as someone whose bread and butter is empathy, I’m not always sure what we mean by it. “Empathy” is this great thing we’re all supposed to treat each other with, but …

What exactly is empathy?

The empathy that matters — effective empathy — is not some abstract mood or state of being. Rather, effective interpersonal empathy is a set of behaviors that have an impact on other people. Specifically, empathy is the habit of understanding and responding with sensitivity and care to the experiences of another.

Note the two aspects of empathy: not only is it about understanding someone else in our own head, it is also about making sure the other person sees that we understand through how we actually respond. As we’ll see, that second piece is the secret sauce that turns ineffective empathy — some fuzzy abstract feeling — into an effective empathy that tangibly improves communication and relationship outcomes. (See more on defining empathy.)

Don’t some people just empathize naturally, and others don’t?

Sure, some parts of empathy might be un-teachable: some of it just takes life experience, and maybe some amount of innate talent.

But there are three simple, concrete and learnable practices that have the marvelous power to make any interpersonal interaction more empathetic. For most people, this is pretty low-hanging fruit — low-cost and high-impact — so it’s often worthwhile to give these practices a try.

First, listen nonjudgmentally.

As explained in the insightful book Nonviolent Communication, these are some things that listening nonjudgmentally is not:

  • Agreeing: “You’re totally right about that.”
  • Sympathizing: “Poor thing!”
  • Consoling: “It’s not your fault. You’ll do better next time.”
  • Advice-giving: “You should do X tonight.”
  • Correcting: “Actually, you should look at it this way.”

These are all judgments : they make an evaluation of the situation (good/bad) or prescribe a solution. Such judgments have their place and time — but if your goal is to empathize, you have to do some nonjudgmental listening first.

Why? First of all, judgment interferes with your ability to fully understand another’s experience. When you listen with the intent to make a judgment, you clog up your own ability to inhabit their perspective. Secondly, once you share that judgment, you’ve shifted the conversation to one where you’re trying to persuade each other. That gets in the way of the goal of understanding.

So how do we listen without judgment? Replace judgment with curiosity. Nonjudgmental listening operates under the guiding assumption that there’s always something more to learn, something that we haven’t caught yet. This is especially true when the other person seems irrational or crazy: all the more reason to lean in with curiosity.

What does this look like in action? When you feel the impulse to agree, correct, or give advice, do this instead:

  • Ask open-ended questions. These don’t ask for “yes” or “no” answers. They ask “who,” “what,” “where,” “when,” “how,” and most of all, “why” — with genuine curiosity.
  • Summarize and ask, “Am I missing anything?” Instead of giving your thoughts or opinions first, try to sum up everything the other person has shared so far, and check to see if there’s anything you missed.

Practice recognizing and deferring judgment in your conversations over the next week. If you notice yourself about to agree, correct, or give advice after someone tells you something — defer that impulse for five minutes and instead ask yourself, “What am I missing?” (Even if you don’t see yourself as particularly judgmental, you’ll eventually bump into some sort of judgment. Defer that judgment even further than you normally would.) Debrief this experience with a trusted friend or colleague. What challenges did you face in deferring judgment? How did you overcome it?

Second, flesh out their perspective, and demonstrate that you’re doing so.

A key to empathy is to recognize that we all end up seeing the world differently. As explained in the extremely useful book Difficult Conversations (and originally from this), the ladder of inference is a simple way to illustrate this:

Get down your ladder!

We all inhabit the same world. But out of all possible data in this world, we only can access a limited pool of available data. Out of this pool, we as humans select certain data to pay attention to, consciously or not. We then apply background assumptions to interpret this data, finally leading us to draw conclusions and solidify our perspectives.

Each of us is perched on the top of our own ladder. In empathetically seeing another’s perspective, our job is to momentarily forget about our own ladders and navigate the other party’s ladder instead.

That means that, first, we’re making sure we can walk up and down that ladder as well as they can. That is, we employ open-ended inquiry to get a better understanding of every rung of another’s ladder. To do this successfully, Difficult Conversations offers these tips:

  • Ask for more concrete information. “I’m interested in hearing more about which things you saw that led you to conclude X.” Or, “So if I’m getting it right, as far as you can tell, X. Were there specific things you saw that led to this conclusion?”
  • Make it safe for them not to answer. “No need on my end for an answer now, but I’m curious about X.”
  • Avoid making statements disguised as questions. For example, avoid: “Wouldn’t you agree that X?” You’re trying to listen, not persuade.

We also want to make sure that we are demonstrating our understanding to them. Effective empathy means that the other person has confidence that you get them. To do this successfully,

  • Paraphrase. In your own words, try to express what they just told you. You can start with: “So if I’m getting this right, you’re saying that …”
  • Summarize the ladder. Use the ladder framework to capture their thought process: “From what I understand of what you’ve said so far, you saw X. And drawing from your experience in Y and Z, you’ve concluded A. Do I have that right?

Failure to demonstrate understanding of someone else’s ladder is a common type of empathy failure. If you notice that another person continues to seem frustrated or unheard, take a second to paraphrase or summarize before doing anything else.

Practice this with a trusted colleague or friend. Have them adopt a controversial political opinion that you utterly do not understand or are disgusted by. Then practice walking up and down their ladder with the tools above. Don’t try to change their mind — your job is to simply empathize (without necessarily agreeing). Debrief the experience with them: What did you have trouble with and why? What was the impact on them of certain questions you asked? What went well? What would you do differently?

Third, understand and acknowledge underlying emotions and needs.

The third, and hardest, component of acting with empathy is understanding another’s underlying emotions and needs — and again, demonstrating to the other person that you are doing so by acknowledging them out loud.

Emotions fundamentally color our experience: in order for our experience to be understood, our emotions have to be understood first. The psychologist Paul Ekman’s Atlas of Emotions recognizes five basic emotions:

  • Sadness — triggered by perceived loss.
  • Disgust — triggered by perceived toxicity.
  • Fear — triggered by perceived danger.
  • Anger — triggered by perceived interference.
  • Enjoyment — triggered by things that feel good.

The basic emotions combine in varying ways to describe our myriad more nuanced feelings. Build your emotions vocabulary by perusing some common feelings. (I’ve realized that I’m shockingly inarticulate when it comes to emotions — besides recognizing feeling “good,” “bad,” and “frustrated,” I’ve been trying to work on recognizing these many others as well.)

As explained in Nonviolent Communication, at the root of many negative emotions are underlying unmet needs. Needs can span the range from basic, physiological needs to needs for self-actualization or fulfillment. The book Beyond Reason identifies “five core concerns” that are universal, yet often unspoken, needs:

  • Appreciation — the need to be recognized as valuable;
  • Autonomy — the need to have the freedom to affect or make decisions without imposition from others;
  • Affiliation — the need to feel connected with another person or group, structurally or personally;
  • Status — the need to have standing comparable to the standing of others; and
  • Role — the need to have clear responsibilities and expectations in a given situation.

Again, it helps to build your needs vocabulary by familiarizing yourself with some common needs.

What happens when we let our emotions just play in the background? Well, if they’re signaling a need, then we aren’t able to actually meet the unmet need if we’re just ignoring it — leading to a frustrating conversation. We also risk letting emotions interrupt the conversation in destructive ways —as explained in Emotional Intelligence, our “emotional brain” (the amygdala) may unwisely override our “thinking brain” (the neocortex). Both these risks get in the way of effective empathy.

In contrast, when we acknowledge and name feelings and underlying needs, people feel fundamentally heard. These usually lie at the heart of what people are trying to express, so showing we get them demonstrates true understanding. So how to do it? Following the suggestion of Nonviolent Communication,

  • Listen for underlying emotions and needs. Tune your ear for the emotions the other person might be showing but not telling. Consider the “five core concerns” and other needs, and develop a hypothesis for what need is being expressed. It helps to familiarize yourself with the lists above.
  • Name the emotion and the underlying need. One way to phrase it could be: “It sounds like you’re feeling upset because you’re wanting some form of appreciation for your work.” Or, “For you this experience has been frustrating because you need to be able to function independently.”
  • Ask for confirmation or clarification. Check if your hypothesis is right. “Did I understand you right?” Or, “Did I hear you correctly in saying that?” If you are wrong, they will tell you and help get you to a truer understanding of their emotions and needs.

Practice identifying emotions and needs this with this quiz. Which of these are true acknowledgments of emotions and needs, and which are not? After comparing your answers with ours, debrief them with a trusted colleague or friend. How would you feel most comfortable naming a feeling and a need? What wording would you use? What challenges do you imagine overcoming, and how?

When is empathy worth it?

“I don’t have enough time for this!” Sometimes there are enough things to worry about that empathy seems like the last priority. It’s up to you to weigh when those reasons override the importance of empathy described above. But here are some indicators where applying effective empathy will save more time than not:

  • When the other person seems to feel unheard. They might be saying the same things over again, raising their voice, or perhaps seeming flustered or offering disorganized thoughts. This is an indication that some transfer of understanding is not happening. Effective empathy helps get past that block (before longer-term damage may be done).
  • When there seems to be a strong difference in perspective. The other person might have some conclusion or position that shocks or surprises you; it may seem irrational or ignorant. These situations easily lead to intractable disagreement and stresses in the relationship; the tools of effective empathy can drive understanding before actualizing that risk.
  • When you feel a desire to judge or blame someone else. Your desire could be justified. At the same time, this desire makes you susceptible to pernicious cognitive biases, including selection and confirmation bias. Effective empathy helps avoid those situations.

“What if they really are wrong? I don’t want to validate their untruths/irrationality!” Again, none of the tools of effective empathy entail agreement. If you are afraid that they will nevertheless interpret your empathy as agreement, just acknowledge your disagreement and move on: “You know, my own perspective on this is quite different, but I want to understand yours as well. Then maybe I can share mine.”

“But they deserve judgment!” Sure — and they could also deserve empathy. And more likely than not, empathy can still be useful to you. However, effective empathy often becomes impossible after expressing judgment: a good rule of thumb is that empathy works best when used first.

“What about sharing my own point of view, and my own feelings?” Great question. The empathy we’ve talked about here is only half of the story. The same rules apply in reverse, when you’re sharing empathetically. You’ll see some posts here on that very topic soon.

Practice by brainstorming some other barriers to effective empathy that you might face. What are those barriers? What causes those barriers? What are some strategies you could deploy to overcome them, either in the moment or in preparation? What wording would you actually use? Share these with a trusted friend or colleague and compare lists.

Go forth and empathize!

There’s so much more to effective empathy, but these behaviors are a starting point. Effective empathy isn’t complicated, but it can be hard. It takes a good framework, and lots of practice. Even remembering to use just one of these tools can help when you need it most.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be exploring related topics in more depth. I’d love to hear your questions and thoughts in the comments below!

Seanan Fong is the founder of Cylinder Project, where he helps startups and teams turn disagreements and grievances into insights and learning. His practice combines expertise in conflict resolution with a background focusing on tech startups. He is based in the Bay Area.

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