The Role of Empathy in Communication
Empathy is sensing another’s feelings and attitudes as if we had experienced them ourselves. Being able to be empathetic toward the person we are communicating with will open wide the channel of communication–and understanding. This is crucial if we want to connect and reach women today.
Creating Empathy by What We Think
We need to recognize that people are able to sense what we really think about them. Even though we may be skilled at acting a part, inevitably the truth will come out, and if we do not genuinely have respect for someone they will sense this. The way we think about the other person will communicate itself to them, thus enhancing or seriously jeopardizing our chance for effective communication.
- Take seriously the other person’s needs and concerns. We may think these needs and concerns are inappropriate or unimportant—but they are real to that person, and as such, we need to take them seriously.
- We must value their right to their feelings and attitudes, which are the result of their life’s experiences.We may not be able to relate to their feelings and attitudes, but it’s important to relate to them as people.
- The other person's privacy, values and experiences may be foreign to us, even unacceptable, but they are integral to the other person’s viewpoint. Our goal is to understand how they are perceiving things.We do not have to be afraid that this means we are agreeing with them or condoning what they are trying to do.We are simply keeping the lines of communication open.
- Reserve judgment and blame. This is important if we are to achieve a worthwhile outcome. When people sense they are judged (or even blamed) by you, and particularly if they believe they may be found wanting, they are much less likely to want to hear what you have to say.
Creating Empathy by What We Do
While what we actually think can be communicated subconsciously to the other person and therefore reduce or enhance the build up of empathy between you and the other person, what we actually do is even more obvious and is influenced by our thoughts about the person.
- Be aware of and respectful of any cultural differences.
- Look at the person and take an active interest in what they are saying when communicating.
- Ask relevant questions for clarification. If you allow your concentration to fade, so that it becomes obvious you haven’t been listening, or, if others distract you constantly, you are signaling to the person that what they are saying is not of great interest to you.
- Use open body language—make and hold eye contact, face the person—lean forward a little and avoid crossed arms. If the situation is difficult—try to find a quiet place and sit down rather than stand. (Never stand if that other person is sitting).
- Be very aware of facial expression—have a pleasant expression—smile! And try not to frown even if you are concentrating.
- Make affirming gestures - such as nod and sounds of agreement at appropriate intervals.
- Use a warm vocal tone. Listen to your voice; don’t let it become intimidating, cold, flat or screechy; don’t raise it if the conversation doesn’t go as you had planned. Try to keep your voice warm and encouraging.
Certain words or phrases block empathy instantly. Sometimes we use them without realizing the damage they can do. When we have finished using these thoughtless expressions we have often “lost” our chance to communicate to the other person.
“If you aren’t able to get to work on time we’ll have to review your job here.”
“Do it or else.”
“I’ll see you immediately in my office.”
“You don’t work hard enough.”
“Only an idiot would say that.”
“You should have said no.”
“You should face the facts."
These examples slip out of our mouths easily, but they are quite destructive to a developing relationship.
The Five Steps in Resolving Conflicts
1. Pray about the Problem Together
Do this humbly not as a way to bring judgment down on the other person! Commit to trying to find a solution, and then define the conflict as a mutual problem.In the majority of conflict situations, neither side is totally wrong or totally right. In most cases there are things to sort out on both sides.So try to perceive the situation as a mutual problem not a win / lose struggle.
2. Clarify the Issues—Focus on the Needs and Goals
- Reframe the situation with the questions: What do we need to do to get out of this situation? What are our goals?What are the concerns? Don’t be dragged back into recriminations or old gossip that is quite destructive.
- Treat the other person and their viewpoint with respect. Take the time to give each other time to state a viewpoint (active listening without interruption). Once we really understand the other person’s viewpoint it is much easier to want to come to an agreement. Use specific communication—use “I” words instead of “you” words.(Instead of “You make me so mad when you do that!,”I might say, “I feel so angry when something is said to me without considering my perception in the situation”)
- If the conflict is serious it may not be possible to sort all of the problems out at one time. Identify the options and develop the ones that give everyone more of what they want. Try to agree to deal with one issue at first, and then you can move on to the next.
- Take a long-term view. Support what is legitimate and fair—resist greed and injustice. “Give” in areas that are high value to others and easy for you to give.Remember that you cannot expect to have everything go your way.
3. Understand Each Other’s Perspective
4. Break the Conflict into Small Steps
5. Give and Take
Jean Thomas moved to Texas with her husband Fred Thomas when he retired from his position as Undersecretary of the General Conference and she left a position in North American Division’s Church Ministries department. Soon Mrs. Thomas went back to work and served as editor of the Southwestern Union Record magazine for ten years. She has conducted many seminars about communication and leadership throughout Texas, New Mexico, Louisiana, and Arkansas.