There is a simple technique that can encourage someone to have empathy for you—or for you to feel empathy for someone else.
I understand that many people reading this might think: “I shouldn’t have to encourage someone’s empathy—if empathy isn’t forthcoming, it isn’t authentic.” However, this simply isn’t the case.
All too often, when there is any type of conflict or misunderstanding with someone, we automatically move into defensive mode, instead of remaining open to how the other person perceives the situation.
When we are in this dynamic, as much as we (or the other person) may think that we are empathizing and seeing things equally from both angles, what usually happens is that we become so determined to be seen and heard ourselves that we get louder emotionally (or verbally), and this results in us focusing mostly on our own pain, frustration, or anger.
The old saying, “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes,” is frequently used to explain how we can understand other people; however, when we are in the midst of tension, we often forget to do just that.
More often than not, the misunderstandings that exist between us and other people can be resolved in a matter of moments—if we are both willing to hover on the same wavelength for a few moments and become aware of one another’s differences, perspectives, and grievances.
If we haven’t experienced something for ourselves, we may struggle to know exactly how someone else is feeling and how much the issue is bothering them.
Therefore, to enhance our ability to empathize, we can focus on viewing things from their perspective, so that we are able to identify with and understand their emotions and feelings.
The moment we let someone know that we truly understand and care about how they feel, misunderstandings and miscommunication begin to diminish.
Here is a quick guide we can use (and, perhaps, gently encourage others to consider), for those times when we’d like to lovingly communicate, but are failing to see eye to eye.
The first and most important thing to remember—before we attempt to empathize—is to try to ensure all tempers are calmed.
We can’t be responsible for other people’s emotions, and we cannot force someone else’s emotions to be soothed if they are not willing (or ready) to simmer. What we can do is be patient and wait for the chance to communicate, when either we or the other person is rational, balanced, ready to listen, and has the intention of holding a mutually respectful conversation.
This practice can be extremely healing, and it encourages connectedness and stronger bonds to form. When we feel that someone genuinely wants to work on strengthening our relationship, mountains can be moved in the space of minutes.
Although this practice can work both ways, to make it easier to understand, I’ll explain it from the perspective of the person who feels misunderstood and is hoping the other person will try to empathize with how they feel.
Begin by asking the person you want to openly communicate with if they are willing to allow you to speak honestly, so that you can share what’s weighing on your heart and mind.
If they agree (and if it feels comfortable), sit facing one another.
Light candles and play gentle music in the background to create a relaxing atmosphere, and try to ensure there will be no external interruptions.
Look into one another’s eyes for a few moments, and if it feels appropriate, hold hands.
Then, ask them to close their eyes—and, if possible, to listen without speaking over you.
Dedicating time and creating a serene environment to communicate sets a calm and safe space to be able to slowly and thoughtfully explain how you feel.
When explaining things from your perspective, the twist is to share your story as though the other person is the one who has experienced your situation, and they are the ones now feeling hurt—or are in emotional pain or feeling misunderstood.
For example, if you are being quizzed and questioned due to the other person’s insecurity or trust issues, the shoes are swapped, so they listen without judgement and attempt to gain insight into how suffocated and unhappy they may feel if they were the one constantly interrogated.
Or, if your partner has had an affair, and you are struggling to get over the pain and trust them again, you can ask them to imagine that you were the one who had the affair, and then go into as much detail as you feel you need, so that the shoe (so to speak) is on the other foot.
This practice can allow you to release any pent-up emotion that is causing difficulties in your relationship, and it also may give your partner an idea of the suffering you have gone through—and the pain you are still dealing with—as, for a few moments, they are imagining how they would feel if they had been lied to and cheated on.
This offers the other person an opportunity to cultivate empathy, as they are imagining the pain and suffering you have experienced by imagining themselves in the same situation. They may not understand the exact emotion, but it will offer a glimpse into how you feel.
When describing your feelings and the overall scenario, take a pause at significant sections to give time for the words to sink in. When you explain the parts that you feel particularly misunderstood about, encourage the other person to tell you how it makes them feel to imagine that the same situation had happened to them.
Gently remind them that whatever they are feeling is likely only a fraction of what you have felt or still feel. They are only visualizing that the same situation has happened to them, and then projecting how it might feel. At any time, they can snap out of it and it will no longer be an aspect of their reality—whereas, it remains a part of yours.
The first time you do this exercise, you may receive silence instead of the answers you hope for. But do not feel disheartened, as this type of exercise can feel quite overwhelming, especially if the person has not really taken your emotions into regard or if they are in denial.
They may also not feel able to talk openly, as it is possible that their emotions have temporarily gotten the better of them, and this is often the case when people are filled with remorse and regret but feel unable to voice it.
This exercise may also bring up some resistance, particularly if one (or both) does not feel entirely at ease when thinking or talking about the subject. However, the instant we empathize and connect with another person’s emotions and feelings, huge healing waves occur that can bring in forgiveness, compassion, gratitude, and a powerful healing resonance, as shared understanding has finally been reached, or at the very least attempted.
This exercise can then be reversed, so that the person who has been listening now gets a chance to explain how they think and feel, and where they would like to receive understanding and empathy. I advise taking a short break between the exercises to allow time for what has been said to sink in and for newly incited emotions to settle back down.
Carrying out this practice will lead us to have more compassion for one another as we gain a greater insight into why we or the other party behaved a certain way, or why you are finding it difficult to “just forget” about something that has caused immense emotional pain.
This exercise can be repeated as often as both people feel necessary, as long as it is enhancing and building the relationship—not destroying it further. If, at any point, it appears that the exercise may be destructive in some way, I’d recommend refraining from carrying it out and saving it for a later date—or discarding it entirely—if either, or both people, feel that they do not wish to participate.
To gain the full benefit from this exercise, it can help if we have prepared notes prior to the exercise, so we can read from the paper in case we forget anything—or in case we feel highly emotional when talking about the situation and aren’t able to explain things clearly.
Be prepared for anger and other unhealed emotions to surface. If and when this happens, just breathe for a few moments in order to let the feelings pass before continuing.
Author: Alex Myles
Editor: Yoli Ramazzina
Copy editor: Callie Rushton
Social editor: Cat Monkman