Q: What does "empathy" mean, and why is it a helpful communication tool?

A: Usually when people use the word "empathy," they are referring to compassion or sensitivity. If someone says that you have a lot of empathy, they probably mean that you're sensitive and kind.

However, in the world of psychology, we use the term "empathy" a little more specifically. In psychology, empathy refers to the ability to see things through someone else's eyes. An empathetic person can temporarily shift out of his or her own perspective, and adopt the perspective of another.

We all can do this, of course. But we use this skill in some areas more than others. Especially in the midst of an interpersonal conflict, empathy often gets thrown out the window. As we get locked into our perspectives — and try to convince the other person that we are right — empathy diminishes.

That is why learning to shift into an empathetic state in the middle of a conflict is an extremely powerful skill. It is profoundly disarming. Beginning with an empathetic statement is an excellent method for softening an adversarial dynamic.

The Five-Level Scale

So what does empathy look like? In the world of counseling, we play around with a five-level empathy scale based on the work of Robert Carkhuff. The idea is that a 1 on the scale is a very unskilled use of empathy, a 3 is a basic use of empathy, and a 5 is a deeply skillful use of empathy. Let me give an example of each of these levels to illustrate them.

Let's take a couple named Jane and Jim. Jane comes home from work one day very upset, and Jim responds to her using different levels of empathy. Here is what a level-one empathy response might look like:

    Jane: My boss is such a jerk! I can't believe she treated me that way!
    Jim: I think you're just hungry.

Not very good! Jim wasn't able to adopt Jane's perspective. Even if Jane were hungry, that's not what she's expressing. If Jim used this level-one response, Jane might conclude that Jim doesn't understand her — or doesn't care enough to listen to her.

Maybe it's true that Jim doesn't care. However, it's likely that Jim simply hasn't developed his empathy skills! That's not a crime. But it is something that can be improved.

Let's say that Jim has worked a bit on his empathy skills, and is able to improve things to a level-two. A level-two empathetic response might look like this:

    Jane: My boss is such a jerk! I can't believe she treated me that way!
    Jim: It seems like you're feeling pretty stressed right now.

OK, now that's not terrible. Probably Jane is feeling a bit stressed. However, "stressed" doesn't capture how she's feeling all that well. Jim can probably do a better job of seeing the world through Jane's eyes if he really tries — and really practices.

In a level-three response, the person fairly accurately reflects what the other person is expressing. This is sort of the "basic" level that we, as counselors, try to have as our baseline. At level three, you serve as something of a mirror.

Here is what a level-three empathy response might look like:

    Jane: My boss is such a jerk! I can't believe she treated me that way!
    Jim: That sounds really frustrating. It sounds like you're feeling unfairly treated.

Now, that's not too bad at all. It doesn't add a whole lot to the conversation, but it probably accurately reflects what Jane is feeling. With this response, Jane will likely feel that Jim has heard her accurately. This can be a connecting behavior.

Let's now turn to levels four and five. These are often what we aim for in counseling. In levels four and five, you don't just mirror back what the person is saying. Instead, you draw on other information — what you know about the person, other aspects of the conversation, and so on — and humbly try to "see deeper" into the person's world.

Let me stress that this needs to be done with humility! At best, we're simply guessing, and asking for clarification and correction. We are not mind readers. But quite often, people will appreciate our attempts to empathize — even if we are wrong.

If Jim were to use a level-four empathy response, he might draw on recent conversations that he's had with Jane about her boss. He might really try to see Jane's world through her eyes. In that spirit, he might say:

    Jane: My boss is such a jerk! I can't believe she treated me that way!
    Jim: I know how hard you've been trying at work. It must feel incredibly unfair to be treated that way — especially when your boss gives your co-workers a free pass on their mistakes.

Usually, if you make a level-four response accurately, the other person will say, "Yes! Yes, exactly!" This type of exchange can be extremely disarming. Quite often when we're upset, our sense of distress is accompanied by a feeling that we're all alone. To have someone accurately articulate our perspective dissolves that sense of being alone and misunderstood.

Let's now take a level-five response. In a level-five response, you peer so deeply into the other person's perspective that you see things they might not have even noticed.

This, again, needs to be done very, very humbly! Level-five responses, in my experience, are rarely done perfectly. I usually begin an attempt at a level-five response by saying, "Please correct me if this is wrong..." Or, "I might be off here but..."

Level-five responses also usually come as a result of having a significant amount of insight into the person's psyche — or having a particularly close bond with him or her. A level-five response might look something like this:

    Jane: My boss is such a jerk! I can't believe she treated me that way!
    Jim: That does sound really tough. I mean, you try so hard to do a good job. You even bite your tongue when you get blamed for other people's mistakes. So you're "taking one for the team," and your boss doesn't even know that. It must feel incredibly unfair to be singled-out for mistakes when the other folks get a free pass.

If you really succeed in a level-five response, the other person will often pause and say, "Wow. Yeah. I hadn't even seen it like that, but yeah — totally." Or something of that sort.

In Conflict

Now, discussing empathy responses is an interesting activity. And it's one thing to be able to make empathetic responses in normal conversation. But doing it in the midst of an argument or conflict? That, in my experience, is extremely challenging.

And yet, it's extremely powerful. Even a level-three response can have a highly disarming effect if used to shift gears in the midst of an argument.

For example, let's say that Jim starts with that poor level-one response. Jane gets angry. Jim is tempted to get angry back — but instead, he tries to immediately shift to a level-three. Here's how it might look:

    Jane: My boss is such a jerk! I can't believe she treated me that way!
    Jim: I think you're just hungry.
    Jane: Hungry? What are you talking about! You know, you never listen to me. I'm sick and tired of you telling me how I'm feeling.
    Jim: I'm sorry. You know, that must have felt like I was blowing you off and not even listening to you.
    Jane: Yeah, it did. Thanks for saying that. So anyway, things were really tough today...

Quite disarming! And it was just a level-three. Jane said, "You never listen to me," and Jim said, "It must have felt like I was not even listening to you." (Plus he apologized.) On the empathy scale, he simply mirrored back. That takes only a little bit of skill — but a whole lot of practice.

Of course, Jim would have had to make a conscious decision not to go down the argue-back/defend-himself road, and instead choose to aim for a level-three empathy response. This takes practice, practice, practice (and humility).

And yet the practice is worth it. I do believe that anyone can develop new habits through practice. I used to think that empathy was somewhat of an inborn ability. However, after working with a variety of clients, and seeing their progress, I now look at it as any other type of skill. It can be developed and reinforced. It can become a habit. And when it does, it produces excellent results.

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