What IS empathy, anyway?

Sharing experienceOf all the emotional skills, empathy is possibly the hardest to define – and perhaps also the hardest to practice.

Some people equate empathy with being overwhelmed by other people’s emotions.

But the most sincerely empathetic people I know are also the most self-contained and clear on who they are, what they want, and where they hold their boundaries. Which makes me think that empathy can only really be achieved when we acknowledge that the other person’s experience is not ours, even as we enter into a deep awareness of how they might be feeling.

Some people believe that if they come to a truly empathetic understanding of someone’s experience, they’ll end up agreeing with that person.

Because they like their own point of view and don’t want to agree with the other person, they choose not to reach for that level of understanding.

But understanding does not equal agreement. Instead, understanding – especially at the empathetic level – gives us the knowledge we need to settle disagreements, resolve conflict, negotiate productively, and strengthen relationships.

Some people can’t bring themselves to empathize with someone who seems so wrong.

But, as I wrote about here and also here, it is only when we can empathize that we have any hope of real communication. And as I commented to someone lamenting that, “I can’t reason with him!”, reason and data simply don’t work in cases of emotionally-charged disagreement and conflict – but empathy often does, even in situations that appear hopelessly entrenched.

So what is empathy?

Empathy is the honest and sincere effort to help another person feel felt.

Not just heard. I hear a lot of things, even when I’m not paying attention.

Not just understood. The words, phrases, and sentences may make sense, but I’m still not necessarily getting it.

Felt. Felt at, yes, the level where you can understand why someone might be saying and doing the things they’re saying and doing – even if you disagree, and no matter how vehemently you may disagree.

You don’t have to agree to empathize – to help them feel felt, feel gotten at that deep gut level and heart level.

Because here’s the thing: when someone feels felt, they become more open and less resistant.

When someone believes – really, truly believes – that you understand the emotions behind their words and deeds, they begin to be ready and able to hear you in turn.

And that makes all the difference in the world.

(Credit to Dr. Mark Goulston and his book Talking to Crazy for the wonderfully descriptive term “feel felt.”)