How to Empathize Correctly

Empathizing is the art of acknowledging someone's feelings to show that you understanding without saying "I understand." When used properly, empathizing can diffuse emotional reactions to allow for more reasonable, productive conversation.

Listen Use the listening skills we've all heard a million times. Pay attention, don't interrupt, use positive body language, and maintain regular (though not constant) eye contact. Quiet your brain for a moment and just listen.

Recognize the Emotions Presented Some examples of emotions that are easy to recognize and usually safe to verbally acknowledge include: confused, frustrated, worried, concerned, overwhelmed, or nervous. It's advisable to stay away from naming emotions that could erode the person's self esteem or potentially heighten the stress level if assigned incorrectly.

Do Not Judge As human beings, we are blessed with the ability to feel. Recognize that sometimes we feel more than others, and these feelings can present themselves in the form of aggressive body language, raised volume, unkind words, or a reddened face. Don't let the fact that someone is experiencing strong feelings get in the way of finding a solution or resolving an issue.

Remove Yourself The most important thing to remember when empathizing with people who are clearly expressing emotions is that it is not you who needs to be acknowledged, it's them. Beware, it is truly easier said than done. Do not say "I understand," for in many situations you will be faced with the common retort, "How can you possibly understand?!" or "No you don't!" Also, don't start with "I noticed" or "I think," as these both begin with you instead of them.

Empathize A good empathizing statement includes a very brief summary of the situation (paraphrase) along with a general statement about the emotion you are observing. Here are some examples:

"Sounds like this economy has caused you some worry." (Situation: economy; emotion: worry)

"Dealing with four kids and three dogs must be really overwhelming." (This one uses a gentle assumption of emotion, rather than assigning one)

"It can be confusing to figure out home loan paperwork for the first time." (This one refers to the situation without specifically putting the person into it.)

"So, you're concerned that your payment won't arrive on time and you'd like to receive daily e-mail updates?" (This one begins with the ever-useful "so" and ends with a question, which is a great way to empathize and verify accuracy in one sentence.)

Continue Don't let the person's emotion(s) take control. Make your best effort to diffuse the emotions, and then move on with the rest of the conversation. Use your problem-solving, compromising, collaboration, cooperation or negotiation skills to regain control and move forward with a reasonable conversation.