Tuesday, February 28, 2023

It was a day like any other day, but this day was about to unfold quite differently. I picked up the phone to call a friend who had been on my mind. I could tell by the crackle and brief pauses in her voice that this was a day of struggle. She shared that her feet hurt, she needed socks, bed sheets, and was hungry for peanut butter. She was experiencing a transition in her life, moving from a place of great stress into a place of healing and security. She was starting over.

We proceeded to the store near her new living space. She shared her heartaches and her regrets in life. I just listened. We walked slowly through the aisles as she shuffled her hurting feet. New shoes and thick socks, personal items, and peanut butter were in the cart. Basic needs were met for that day, and she began to share her hopes and dreams on the way home. I listened empathetically. She was not alone. I was by her side.

Empathy has no script. There is no right or wrong way to do it. It's simply listening, holding safe space, withholding judgment, emotionally connecting, and communicating that incredibly healing message of “you are not alone.”

Empathy is the ability to understand and connect with the feelings of another. Having the ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes, to relate and understand, even if you have never been in that situation before.

A story to tell

Everyone has a unique life story they are living today. While I have different experiences in my life, I feel similar emotions that help me relate to those in my path. I enjoy asking others, “How is today going for you?” I often find that there is value in taking an intentional moment to look directly in their eyes and ask the question again. It is not uncommon that I will receive a different and more honest response. Taking the time to listen can make a measurable difference in someone’s day.

Walking in their shoes

Recognizing the feelings of others is putting yourself in their shoes, their situation. This might mean feeling tearful, scared, or overjoyed as they share. These connections begin to reflect an understanding of their emotional expression. I acknowledge and validate their tears, sadness, frustration, or any emotions they carry. It is part of our human nature to experience emotions and sharing these with others can be healing.

I continually seek to refine my skills to nurture empathy and attentive listening. I am a lifelong learner. Here are some skills I have learned.

How to build empathy

Empathy can be learned and can improve over time with practice. Taking the time to step into the other person’s shoes is the necessary first step we must take to engage in conversations. When I sit next to that person and begin to just listen, a sense of calm unfolds within them.

  1. Acknowledge their pain. When you join with someone’s pain or struggle, you are making a connection. It helps the person feel supported and shows that you are trying to understand how they might be feeling. Often, people in pain just want to be heard. They want validation that what they are going through is difficult.
  1. Show gratitude that they shared. Many people struggle with vulnerability because they have been hurt in past conversations. They hesitate to share for fear they won’t receive an empathetic and understanding response. When someone chooses to share their thoughts and feelings with you, it shows they really trust you. It’s our job to honor that and respond with care. Let the person know you appreciate what they just shared with you. It signals that there is a safe space to be more open.
  1. Be encouraging, don’t try to “fix it.” I believe most strive to be encouraging when a friend or loved one is going through a tough time. The problem is that we often show this by trying to “fix” the problem or spin the conversation, forcing the person to look on the bright side. Resist the urge to smooth out the situation, but instead encourage the conversation leaning toward empathy and understanding.

I have the privilege to sit with those who are in pain - emotionally, spiritually, physically, or mentally. I have sat and shared with those who have encouraged me at difficult times and I choose to sit and listen with others to build up and support them. It is less about what I say and more about showing up and being an active listener.

Have you taken a moment and listened with empathy today?

Have you made time to sincerely ask someone, “How are you doing?”