EMPATHY & A CULTURE OF TRUST

Excerpt From Relationships That Work: The Power Of Conscious Living
– By David B. Wolf

Consider once more the workplace scenario described above.

“Can you believe how he ran that meeting? He didn’t care what anyone had to say. And the way he treated me? I’m quitting this place!”

Envision your response to the following comment: “You felt really insulted because of how he treated you during the meeting. I hear your anger toward the supervisor. You are so frustrated that you want to leave this place.”

When someone really listens to me, deeply understands me and acknowledges the pain I am experiencing, I begin to feel less upset and more capable of handling my emotions and difficulties. Feeling cared about, I am moved to share more. Caring is reflected in listening, and an empathic response is an effective strategy to show that we have listened. Reflective, empathic responses build trust. If you reflect to me what I have said and the feeling behind the words, it is a sign that you truly care about me and what I have to say. This type of response is called reflective listening, or mirroring. In addition to creating a trusting environment, an empathic response enables me to reflect on myself. Just as I can see myself better by looking in a mirror, I can also see into my thoughts, emotions and experiences better if someone else takes the role of the mirror.

For example, in response to the above reflective comment, I might think to myself, “I am upset with him, though it’s not that I really want to quit the job. There are many things I appreciate about this office—even about this new boss. I think I will talk to him. Maybe he is upset that I haven’t turned in those reports. I may apologize about that, though I will let him know that I didn’t appreciate how he spoke to me during the meeting.”

Note that empathy is not sympathy. Sympathy can imply a sense of pity, such as is expressed in “I feel so bad for you.” This does not convey an understanding of what the other person is saying, whereas a statement such as “I hear that you are feeling humiliated because she made a joke at your expense in a public forum” is an empathetic reflection that shows comprehension of content and affect.

Also, we can recognize that the statement “I understand” in itself is not a reflective statement. It is a declaration of knowledge. A statement such as “I understand that you are feeling unfulfilled because you know you can be more productive” is a reflective statement conveying empathy, because I have expressed not just that I understand, but what I understand to be the emotion and content of what the person is sharing. Of course, this does not mean that it is wrong to respond, “I understand.” Accompanied with appropriate non-verbal behavior and caring intention, such a response can communicate empathy.

It is said that people don’t care what we know until they know that we care. Demonstration of empathy is a wonderful way to show that we care. Empathic listening in itself creates a quality of human connection that is satisfying for the soul. And it produces an environment conducive for sharing whatever valuable knowledge we may have. In the field of social work there is a saying: “Start where the client is at.” By meeting people where they are, we build trust, stimulate self-exploration, and clarify our perceptions.

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