Building Empathy in Communication Skills

A large sign that spells out the word "understanding" stands tall against a cloudy sky. In the background is a marina with boats and buildings lining the docks.

What is empathy in communication? How do we better understand the feelings of another person? Moreover, why do some people lack empathy, and can it be taught?


When working with folks who have been deeply traumatized and neglected, it’s not uncommon to encounter some people who struggle to experience and express empathy. As service providers, this can be tough. So how do we build a connection with a person who lacks (or seems to lack) empathy?


What is Empathy?

The good news is that most humans are capable of empathy. While there are some psychiatric challenges and other disabilities that can make it difficult to express and experience empathy, almost everyone has some capacity for empathizing.


There are many definitions of empathy. Share’s simple and specific definition of empathy is:


A deep understanding of another person’s experience, perspective, and/or emotional state.


Expressing empathy is about demonstrating that deep understanding.


Researchers have determined that there are several realms of empathy—it exists on a spectrum. Psychologists often describe two primary types of empathy: cognitive and emotional.


Cognitive, or “perspective taking,” attends to the person’s experience and/or perspective. We hear another person’s story, we work to understand (deeply) how the person experiences and/or perceives their journey.  We can then express empathy to assess whether we are accurate in our deep understanding of their experience and/or perspective.


Emotional empathy is when we focus on the underlying emotions and feelings that the person experienced in a given moment or along their journey. We can then express empathy to assess whether we are accurate in our deep understanding of the feelings they experienced.


When serving people, whether in social work, education, treatment, criminal justice, or another similar human services field, it’s essential to tap into both types of empathy. It’s an all-important skill that helps us build rapport with our clients and helps create an environment of safety and trust.


Expressing empathy also helps create an accepting (non-judgmental), safe space where people can further express their emotions and experiences. It supports them to be more vulnerable with us, which then helps us be more supportive and accurate in our approach.


When we empathize with someone, we are perspective-taking vs. assessing or judging. We are relating to the experiences that have contributed to their current situation through their lens. To be clear, empathy is not agreement, it is simply understanding and deeply.


Further, we can make a guess how they would feel given their situation and experience. When we share that guess, we are expressing empathy. We are demonstrating our deep understanding of how that person may have felt. When we do this, the person can agree with or correct our guess. With either outcome, this helps us tune in more accurately as we continue our service journey with the person.


We can also leverage empathy to support the person to see within themselves their strengths and recognize ways that they can build on positive choices and learning opportunities to grow and move beyond the loop they may be stuck in.


When we truly express empathy, we are manifesting a healthy boundary to maintain our own wellbeingness. We do not have to feel what the served person feels, we just need to understand that’s how they feel.


As service providers, to maintain that healthy boundary, it’s important to take steps to cultivate our own emotional wellbeing. These steps might include practicing self-care, sharing with mentors and coworkers (formally and informally), and taking time to periodically check in with ourselves. Vicarious traumatization can lead to burnout and exhaustion.


How to Connect Someone Who Doesn’t Have Empathy

So, what about people that seem to lack empathy? Are there people without empathy? The answer is complex.


For many reasons, some people might have a more limited spectrum of emotions or emotional capacity. For example, sometimes a brain injury, illness, or extreme experience of psychological and/or emotional trauma can make it challenging for people to identify emotions in others. This is typically due to a lack of wiring in the brain that supports a person to experience empathy.


For other people, a lack of empathy might be a protective response that they’ve cultivated to cope with the traumatic experiences and circumstances in their life. Their walls go up. While they may still have the capacity for empathy, they’ve had to protect themselves from the emotional harm in their environment. This is a type of adaptive behavior that can be adjusted by modeling empathy and supporting the person to practice empathizing in myriad ways and over time.


When you’re working with a client, student, or another served person trying to build a rapport and open communication channels, it can feel challenging to break through these barriers and figure out how to connect.


When we’re in a situation where we’re trying to connect with someone who seems to have put up an empathy “wall,” one important method is to model empathy. When we express empathy, we are modeling it.


“I can imagine that made you feel upset,” or, “That situation must have been hurtful.” These are examples of expressing empathy.


In order to express accurate empathy, we must actively listen. When we’re engaged with people and holding space for them­­–– we’re deeply listening. We’re giving the other person our full, undivided attention with our eyes, ears, and our energy. That means offering eye contact without requiring them to make eye contact, focusing on what the person is meaning and/or implying with their words, and marrying that with our intuition. What does this person mean by these words they’re sharing? How might this person have felt when they experienced it? It’s important to note that a key distinction is what might have the person’s experience and/or feelings have been, vs. how might I have experienced or felt.  Let’s look at an example:


Person says: “I don’t know how I’m going to make rent. I can’t keep the hours at my job and make all these appointments my PO is requiring.”


Our guess to express empathy might be: “You’re feeling really stretched financially and timewise and wanting to figure out how to balance all your commitments.”


The primary way we express and model empathy is through responding with complex reflections and in our tone. Our tone must be emptied of bias, judgment, ideas, and assessment. Our tone must be accepting. When we share Motivational Interviewing, we invite our learners to do this exercise. Maybe take it for a spin to contextualize this concept to your role and service population.


Focus on Staying Positive and Respectful

Empathy is crucial in today’s world and yet, as Brenè Brown said, “We are in a real empathy deficit right now.” People are longing for that opportunity to share, connect, and talk with others even when they’ve had to build walls to protect themselves from trauma and pain.


When we interact with our clients, patients, students, or other served persons, we may not always feel like tapping into our own sense of empathy—especially if we’ve also been facing challenges. But when we can shift our response to one that’s positive and respectful, we can often see it reflected back to us. By modeling, we can invite, encourage, and increase the skill of those we serve to experience and express empathy within their circles. This can be very helpful in many circumstances and perhaps especially helpful when working with parents.


Every human wants to be truly seen and heard. When we empathize with people—even if they seemingly lack empathy in the moment—we can often create a shift.  We can provide an experience to those we serve of being heard and seen.


To do that, focus on what might be contributing to a person’s current affect. Instead of trying to change or direct their response, aim to simply understand and hold space for them to listen and learn how they feel, experience, and/or perceive.


As we all work together to build a kinder, more compassionate, and equitable society, empathy is at the foundational core. Literally and metaphorically, empathy is at the heart. When we empathize with people, we can tip the scales and connect. We can rid ourselves and those we serve of bias and judgment. We can create healthy boundaries for ourselves and others. We can support growth!


Focus on creating an environment of acceptance. Allow people to constructively express their feelings and offer them understanding. When we express empathy, we often find it reflected back to us, setting the foundation for a stronger rapport and engagement, which are the number one indicators of a positive outcome in any service relationship and the number one indicators of retention across our teams.


Please reach out for more ideas on sharing and connecting with our communities. We offer a full range of courses to help you foster empathy within yourselves, those you serve, and across your team. Together we can create the foundation for positive ripples at work, in your community, and beyond.

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