Communicating with empathy

Roughly a 4 minute read by Chris Willerton

Empathy Communication

As part of Mental Health Awareness Week, and following on from Heidi’s post on why Kindness is the key in trying times, I wanted to put down some thoughts on empathy. Now more than ever, we must communicate with empathy and understanding if we are all to succeed.

I specifically used the word “choose” above because I believe it is a choice. We’ve all been there, myself included; it’s easy to build up a barrier, think the worst of something, or to assume someone is looking to make life hard for us. What we must all try to do is push away unhealthy thoughts and reactions like these, and when things get tough aim to truly walk in the shoes of our colleagues, clients and friends.

So what do we mean by empathy?

There’s the obvious dictionary definition which is:

The ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

This explains the definition, but not how to achieve it. How do you understand how someone else is feeling? Luckily, we all have simple examples of empathy “built in” that we can relate to and use to develop ourselves with. For example, when someone stubs their toe, you can almost feel the pain they’re feeling yourself. When someone around you is feeling stressed, it can actually make you feel more stressed as you understand their situation and recall a similar time you were in that position. Having said this, empathy isn’t as strong in some people as it is in others, and we can all work on it as a skill to generally improve our communication and social interactions.

I personally believe that empathy is much harder if you don’t understand yourself. How can you understand how someone else is feeling if you don’t have a good handle on your own thoughts and feelings. Perhaps most important in this is why you think a certain way. Understanding your own feelings is essential for your mental health and wellbeing, and is the foundation of better understanding and interactions with others.

To better understand myself, and improve my own empathetic skills, I recently started to journal my thoughts. Like a lot of skills, it feels a bit awkward or weird at first, but I am finding that if I stick to a routine and take that extra time to engage with my own thought process then the benefits are really obvious. I feel I have a much better understanding of myself and why I do certain things. I also feel less negative as I am actively engaging with and analysing negative thinking. This in turn has helped me to understand others more - a skill I aim to keep improving likely for the rest of my life! I was initially quite reluctant to journal, but found that there are some really good starting points online, as well as some dedicated journals you can buy that will guide you through the process each time.

Moving back to “communicating with empathy”, I think we could all do with examining our proficiency with this skill. We should also treat it as a skill, and as something that can be improved over time. It’s also one of those things that is useful at work and in our personal lives. It might make you better understand why a client is asking for an unexpected change, or why a friend couldn’t make that video call. I’m reluctant to begin this sentence with “in these uncertain times”, but the better we can understand each other, the better we can communicate and achieve positive relationships with friends, clients and colleagues.

I implore you today to take some time thinking about the communications you have with those around you. Try walking in their shoes and hopefully realise a better understanding about where they’re coming from.