At the end of last year, I wrote about the importance of empathy, and a few things I learned around practicing empathy. It’s one of my favorite topics, and I’m so excited to be giving a talk on that today at CMX Spark EMEA. It’s a short talk for a big topic, so this post serves as a companion piece to my talk itself. You can find my slides here, and a recording of the talk here.
As a community professional and super caring human being, I am always mindful of where and when I can communicate with empathy. When someone shares their experience or their feelings with me, that’s a major gift! If what they are sharing requires them to be vulnerable and open, that’s a show of trust, and how I respond can either reinforce or break that entirely. In those moments, turning to genuine empathy is my preferred way to connect with others.
Refresher on Empathy
For this presentation, I’m working with a very simple explanation of empathy as the ability to understand and share in the feelings of another person. This is not to be confused with sympathy, which is feeling concern for others and wishing them to be happier, or for their situation to improve in some way.
When we communicate with empathy
When we communicate with empathy, it can vastly improve the experience community members have in our community.
Your community will feel safer and more welcoming.
Part of responding with empathy is reserving your own judgement, and really listening to what is being said. A community member who is treated with empathy, especially in the hardest moments, will feel more like they belong.
Community members will feel seen and heard.
Communicating empathetically helps people feel supported, and maybe even validated.
Psychological safety improves.
If a community member expresses something difficult and they are responded to with empathy, they will feel more empowered to express themselves, and likely in more collaborative ways.
Members will want to continue to be involved in your community.
Members who are treated with empathy will see your community as a place that values each individual, and places importance on treating each other with kindness and respect.
But practicing empathy is surprisingly difficult. It takes self-awareness to set aside our own judgement. It’s hard to share in a perspective when everyone has a different frame of reference. On top of all that, feelings are messy, and it can feel both uncomfortable and vulnerable to share in someone else’s experience.
Community professionals can apply what is commonly referred to as Active or Reflective Listening as one way to demonstrate empathy in communication, and it starts with being able to really, truly listen.
The challenge of listening
Listening? Also surprisingly difficult! There are two common patterns of listening that don’t really actually listen.
The first is that we listen to respond. How often, while someone is saying something to you, are you thinking about the perfect response before they’ve even finished? In this case, we’re focused on what we want to stay instead of hearing what is being said.
The second is that we listen to fix a problem. I really like problem solving, so I’m guilty of this one more than I would like to be! In this instance, we’re focused on providing a solution as a response, and in doing so, easily miss acknowledging the problem itself or underlying problems.
I give a couple examples of these communication patterns in my presentation. Check them out! It might sound funny when you read them to yourself, but these are really common ways that people talk to each other. We regularly miss out on what is really being said, along with the opportunity to communicate with empathy.
Active or reflective listening
This is where active or reflective listening can help us better listen and communicate with empathy. First, change the way you listen, and listen for the following instead.
Give the person you are speaking to your full attention and listen to connect. Do you fully understand what they are expressing?
As you’re listening, note what else you’d like to learn. What haven’t they said? What kind of information would add to your understanding? If you can see them, what is being expressed through their body language?
As you listen, take note of keywords that are being said that really capture what the person is trying to express to you. What words stand out to you as being crucial to the story?
In listening this way, we can create empathetic responses by reflecting keywords that demonstrate our understanding and curiosity, in our own terms. This might sound like you’re being redundant, but it’s actually an important step in communicating empathetically. Active or reflective listening achieves the following:
It shows you were listening
Your full attention is on them and what was shared. Even if you didn’t fully understand you were there with them in that moment.
It allows you to check your understanding
By rephrasing and reflecting keywords, we can check our understanding, and give the other person a chance to clarify or even add more information.
It drives connection
It builds rapport, and helps the person feel heard, understood, maybe even validated. We show the other person that we’re there with them in the moment, that we want to understand what they are going through. We really connect with them, and we’re communicating with empathy.
Try it out!
Active listening may feel unnatural at first, but practice, along with a reliance on your sense of care for others, will make this second nature. Copy this worksheet, which has some prompts that require active listening, and try to create your own empathetic responses!