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How to Convey Empathy

by Paige Johansen

Empathy, or understanding the feelings of others, is helpful in both personal relationships and the workplace. Conveying empathy is a skill that can be learned. Some people feel genuinely for another person, but have a hard time exhibiting how much they care. Other people have difficulty putting themselves in another's shoes, but studies show that by conveying empathy, a person actually feels more empathetic.

Show you care with "attending behaviors" -- physical cues that show you are listening and are interested in what the other person has to say. Your face alone can show a lot about how carefully you are listening. Maintain natural eye contact and reflect back feelings with facial expressions. Sit or stand with an open posture. Face the person, and lean toward her to show you are engaged -- though remember to maintain boundaries and stand at least a few feet away. Nod and offer verbal affirmation to show that you are listening ("mmhmm").

Remain open to hearing what the other person has to say and put your feelings aside for a moment to focus on his. People often spend a lot of time in conversations waiting for their turn to talk or offering their own experiences and opinions. Empathy is about understanding where someone else is coming from, so judgement or imposing your feelings on someone else is contrary to your goal of conveying emphathy.

When you really want to show that you are listening, respond by repeating what the person has expressed while talking to you. For example, you might say, "It sounds like you're hurt that he stopped talking to you." This shows that you understand the other person's feelings and have heard what she said. Ask questions for clarification or to go deeper into the issue.

Find out how the other person is feeling and respond by showing him that you think his feelings are understandable given the situation. You may be tempted to try to solve the other person's problem -- an impulse observed frequently in men. If the person is stressed about how his boss acted at work the other day, don't jump in with ways he could confront his boss or how to find a new job (unless he is particularly asking for advice on these things).

About the Author

Paige Johansen has been writing professionally since 2003. She holds a B.A. in psychology and English from Cornell University and an M.F.A. in fiction writing from The University of Virginia. Between degrees, she worked in the fashion industry for two years.

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