STEP THREE: Practice giving empathic responses.
Use role-playing (method #1) with two friends. Take turns being (1) the listener giving empathic responses, (2) the talker pretending to have a variety of problems and (3) the rater giving feedback to the empathizer using the 5-point empathy scale. The rater must rate every response given by the empathizer. Stop the interaction after 4 or 5 empathic responses have been rated. All three can discuss the good responses and how certain comments could have been more effective.
With experience you will learn to develop better and better guesses about the talker's feelings. These hunches come from three major sources:
- Listen to and watch the talker:
a. Hear the talker's words and tone of voice, but, also, observe his/her facial expression and other non-verbal messages. Read "between the lines" for subtle suggestions of feelings (Fast & Fast, 1980).
b. Remember any hints about possible causes of the talker's feelings, e.g. a talker might comment that his father was reluctant to play father-son softball with him when he was 12 or 13 because he was such a poor player. This information may be helpful when discussing the talker's lack of confidence.
- Listen to your own gut reactions:
a. Place yourself mentally in the talker's situation; then imagine what you would do and notice how you are feeling. This is one of the most powerful techniques for generating "intuition" about the talker's emotions.
b. If you have had experiences similar to the talker's, then you can recall and mentally re-create the feelings you had. It is reasonable to assume that the talker may be feeling the same way you did in the same situation.
- Make use of your memory:
a. You have a general notion about how persons similar to the talker would respond in certain circumstances. This accumulated wisdom grows as you study psychology, especially case studies, and have more life experience, if you store the memories away.
b. You may have known others who have had the same problem as the talker. If so, remember how they acted and felt. This may suggest what the talker is experiencing.
Make use of all three sources of insight.
STEP FOUR: Practice giving empathy responses in real-life situations.
Life is filled with opportunities to be empathic. Try it with all your friends, with new acquaintances, with your lover, with co-workers and supervisors, and it will absolutely flabbergast your parents. Also, don't forget to be empathic with people you dislike or with whom you are having a conflict. Empathy not only calms the other person but you will discover that every human being, even the very worst, is understandable when you see the world the way he/she does.
Watch out for the barriers to good, active listening. Guard against advising, questioning, analyzing, judging, interrupting, etc. Be accepting of all feelings; private feelings don't hurt anyone. Remember empathy is a brief response aimed at the gut (or heart--feelings), like "it's really upsetting," "you can't figure out what to do," "it seems like there is no way to win," and "it really seems unfair." It is also important to build your "feelings" vocabulary so you can use words different from those the talker has used, but which connote the same meaning. That's another special skill. When you think you understand the other person's emotions very well, then give an empathy response that aids the talker's self-understanding, perhaps in this form: "You feel ______ because _______ ." Practice, practice, practice. It might also be neat to keep a diary of your experiences establishing deeper, helping relationships with others.
A true friend is a person to whom you can pore out your heart, grain and chaff together, into his/her patient hands and know that he/she will faithfully and gently blow the chaff away, then see clearly the essence of what you meant to say.
Probably a few hours role-playing with friends would be enough to get the hang of empathy responding and to become aware of your old established habits of interacting by using questions, judging the goodness or badness of the talker, focusing on what you can say next, thinking of a good argument against the point being made, etc. However, it is hard to give up the old attitudes and social habits. That's why so much practice in real life is necessary. In fact, it is hard to estimate how much time is involved in becoming a good empathizer because sharpening this skill is a never-ending task. But, if you practice every day, you will certainly notice significant changes in your intimate interactions in a week or two. We can never reach perfection because human behavior is so complex, individuals so different, relationships so intricate, and psychological knowledge so extensive. The more you know, the better you get.
Although this is an excellent way to respond when someone has a problem, there are pitfalls when using the method and misconceptions about the method:
- When you empathize, you are inviting a person to "spill his/her guts." Don't do that unless you are genuinely interested in helping this person and are willing to spend hours dealing with his/her problems. If you only have 10 or 15 minutes, let the talker know exactly how much time you have.
- There is a possibility that the talker will feel worse after talking about and reviewing his/her problems. This is especially true of depressed and angry people. The hope is that the sadness or hatred can be vented (by talking) and that the talker can then move on to find solutions or, at least, to realize the crisis will pass. But sometimes the talker stays (after 2 or 3 hours) focused on increasing sadness or anger, in spite of excellent empathy responses by the listener. Most empathizers eventually nudge the topic towards the consideration of possible solutions, but this may not work. Most of the time, if you let the talker get all the hurt out, he/she will start looking for solutions on his/her own.
- Sometimes empathy works so well that a person starts to use the response excessively, turning every casual conversation into a deep therapeutic session. Skills as a light conversationalist are also needed.
- The talker may erroneously assume that your accurate reflection of his/her feelings means that you agree with his/her opinions or morals. Occasionally (not always), you may feel the need to correct his/her misunderstanding. This can and should be done briefly, then let the talker know you accept him/her being different from you and return to empathizing. Example: if a person tells you about selling pot to his/her friends and being concerned about being caught, you might say, "I would feel guilty about doing that but I understand your interest in it."
- As a therapist, you would give a lot of empathy responses and, perhaps, few self-disclosures. As a friend, however, it is important to share your feelings and disclose your problems just as much as your friend does...or more. Otherwise, you turn an equal friendship into a one-sided therapy interaction.
- When the talker is telling the details of a problem, you may feel you should be saying more. This is needless worry, as long as you show you are interested. A few words reflecting his/her feelings is all that is needed to show the person you are emotionally with him/her.
- Many beginners think it easy to empathize--all you have to do is sympathize. This is not true. You have to detect the unspoken feelings, communicate your understanding, and provide new insights. In addition, there may be behaviors and circumstances that you feel strongly are so wrong, so immoral, or so disgusting, you may not be able to empathize (see determinism, method #4 in chapter 14).
- At first you may think there is only one accurate empathy response but, in fact, there are likely to be several. Example: a friend says, "It is so frustrating to have so much to do--I've got three exams, two papers due, 250 pages to read, and band practice! Besides, I want to party!" You might respond, "It's so irritating because it's impossible to do it all" or "It really is stressful to have so much to do" or "You are scared you won't do well" or "It is disappointing that school work isn't nearly as interesting as partying" or "It is hard to decide what to do." All these responses and others might be accurate.
- The accuracy of an empathy response can't be judged until the talker responds, indicating if he/she thinks the empathizer has understood. The talker is always right! Your comment may be correct according to all the psychology textbooks, but if the talker doesn't agree with your observation or interpretation, you get a low empathy rating. This approach is called "non-directive" or "client-centered," meaning it attempts to free the other person to explore his/her own feelings. Such therapists wait until the client discovers "the truth" for him/herself and develops his/her own plan of attack. It is assumed that the troubled person will profit more from learning he/she can handle his/her own problems than from believing the therapist is a clever analyst and problem solver. Have faith in the person to solve his/her own problem, if you can help them feel save enough to explore their situation, their history, and their feelings.
Effectiveness, advantages and dangers
Empathy responding is one of the better researched treatment methods. It has been demonstrated to be an effective way for therapists to respond (Egan, 1979). If it works in therapy, it should in friendships. Often there are a cluster of therapeutic traits associated with being empathic, such as having unconditional positive regard, being genuine, warm, open, specific and concrete, self-disclosing and so on. It isn't just that empathy is helpful but these various responses replace less sensitive or harmful responses. There are no dangers, except for the few minor pitfalls mentioned above.
Additional readings and reference
Ciaramicoli, A. P. & Ketcham, K. (2001). The power of empathy. Plume.
Nichols, M. P. (1995). The lost art of listening. San Luis Obispo, CA: Impact Publishers.
CareerTrack (1-800-334-1018) offers an expensive listening skills training program (audio or video) and also communications training tapes for teams in the work place.