empathic-listeningIf you have ever been in counselling or have studied even the most basic level of counselling, you may know about empathy, if you have no experience of empathy then you may use it in your day to day life without even realising it. So what is it?

What is Empathy?

There are countless versions of what empathy is, I like this one:

When we are being empathic, we are really attempting to walk in some-one else’s shoes, trying to experience their world as they do. We instinctively feel the anger when we see a news bulletin of an attack on a helpless individual or how someone who is grieving m,ay be feeling at the loss of a loved one, these are empathic feelings.

Empathy develops in early childhood, at around the ages of six or seven, coincidentally around the same ages that we begin to develop a normal sense of right and wrong as far as society sees it.

Empathy is a wonderful skill because it it allows humans to identify with the entire range of emotions experienced by others, it enables us to connect with each other and form groups and communities. People who find it difficult to be empathic, will usually find it difficult to make and sustain close committed relationships and friendships.

Empathy is essential to effective and good friendships and relationships because it opens up the channels for good communication which is essential to forming and maintaining mutual support, a major factor of close bonding..

It is important to remember that empathy is not about fixing problems, it isn’t an invitation to talk about yourself (“Oh that happened to me last summer”) neither is it about talking some-one out of their feelings (you shouldn’t feel like that, or I disagree that’s what happened). Empathy is giving some-one time and space to express and explore their feelings.

It’s a topic that is written about quite a lot, especially in the counselling world. The ability to listen empathically is a crucial tool in every counsellor’s tool-kit.

If you are receiving individual counselling you are probably already aware of how nice empathy feels. But it’s a little known fact empathy can also be an ideal way to strengthen your friendships and relationships.

So how can we use empathy to build and maintain a healthy loving relationship?

There will be opportunities to start using empathy in just about every conversation you ever have, but you may need to think a bit when starting to use it in your relationship. Here are some examples of when using empathy will help your partner and your relationship:

  • If your partner is having difficulties with a manager or colleagues at work
  • If you are having difficulties with other family members
  • If a neighbour is having problems with another neighbour

Many people in relationships avoid empathy because they try to stay clear of issues which are clearly troubling their partner as a way of not thinking about things which they feel helpless to fix, this is the major mistake. It’s not necessary to fix the problem, just listening will contribute to that, listening attentively using empathic skills is as good as it needs to be.

So forget about your need to take your partners pain or troubles away and allow them to just say how it is for them, you will see what a help it is for them just to be heard and understood.

By listening and understanding you will be giving your relationship a real boost if you persevere: without empathy your loved ones won’t feel understood, respected, cared for, or ultimately loved, so try, start practicing today. If you don’t understand, it’s fine to say so and ask your partner or friend to try to express how they feel.

Here are a couple of things to avoid:

  • Don’t change the topic if it feels uncomfortable, stay with your friend or partners feelings.
  • Don’t be critical if your partner doesn’t see it as you do, remember feelings are unique to us all. No two people will feel exactly the same faced with the same problem.

Empathy works best when we try to listen attentively to the emotions in what is being said, by us paying attention to our partners tone of voice, body language and facial expressions, these verbal and visual clues are very important because we are not always able to find the correct or exact words to express how we feel, but our bodies often demonstrate it much more effectively.

Make sure you are giving your full attention, try to make your partner feel that they are the only person in the world at the moment when you are listening to them, try to find a quiet place away from other distractions and focus on their every word and non verbal communication.

Show you really care by monitoring your own body language, don’t fidget, sit down together and look at your loved one directly, this will say to them that you are really interested in how they are feeling and what they want to communicate to you..

Learn more about your loved one by getting curious about their feelings, encourage them to try to fill in the gaps of your understanding by asking them to elaborate on how they are feeling. Let them come up with the words, even if it takes them some time.

Often, all our relationship really needs is a good listening to.

Paul Parkin – online counselling and life coaching