I’ve been thinking a lot about empathy and compassion in the last few days and what these ideas mean to different people. I’m not going into all the variations I have encountered. I just want to share what my definitions are as a stepping stone to connection and problem-solving.
Empathy is a critical tool for us in connecting with others. To me, empathy is being able to understand what another person is feeling and why, even if you might react to the situation very differently. To take it further, empathy that is expressed gives the gift of being heard and understood. This is true even if all you have to offer is, “that sucks.” In fact, sometimes it’s better if we just leave it at that.
My definition of compassion is being able to accept someone for where they are in any given moment. It is seeing beyond yourself. It is being able to accept the choices others make for themselves. Compassion is being able to see people as human beings first rather than enemies, or their labels, or as someone beneath you.
Jane Nelson, Ed.D., author of Positive Discipline and many other books and research studies on the subject, strongly advises “connection before correction” when dealing with children. To me this step of connection is essential for all of us. In order for us to be heard, we must first connect and let the other person be heard fully. She addressed correction in the context of correcting a child’s behavior, but really she is talking about finding a solution that works for everyone.
This is nothing new I am sharing here, it’s just where I happen to be right now. So since I’m here, I’m bringing you with me. Some of these things we need to hear over and over again until it finally makes sense. Some of these things we already know, but need a reminder. Some of these things are just so obvious that we think we get it until we realize we didn’t really. So I’m going to lay out some steps here about connecting in order to get to a place where solutions can be found.
1. The first step is listening – really listening and trying your very best to understand the other person. Something I have found that helps me to really listen (especially when the other person has a lot to express or is just long-winded) is to ask the other person to pause while I write down what I am thinking. That way I don’t have to try to remember until it is my turn, and I can be really present with them.
2. The second step is reflecting or repeating back what you heard in your own words. It is important to use your own words and phrasing so that it is clear you are not just parroting back what the other person said without understanding.
3. The third step – and this is the crucial one that is often missed – validate those feelings. Convey that you understand why that person is feeling the way they do. So in order to honestly validate, we must have empathy. We must be able to both identify and understand that other person’s feelings and then communicate that. We must be able to express our acceptance, but we can only do that if we have true compassion.
Now it may be we can stop right there. If the other person you are communicating with is a stranger you just met or someone you know in some kind of professional capacity or something, you may not have a need to share your feelings and be heard. Or it may be that a partner or family member or friend was just hurting, and you were holding space for them. Okay great…but…if this a relationship problem of whatever kind that needs a solution, continue on to step 4.
4. The fourth step in connecting through the model I am presenting is reciprocation. Now it is our turn to express what we are feeling, for our partner in communication to reflect back what they heard until they get it right, and to validate your feelings, and demonstrate compassion through the expression of acceptance for where you are in that moment.
If any of these steps cannot be met on both sides, true connection is not taking place, and you are not ready to move on to the last step.
However, you may be ready for a break. A couple months ago my therapist gave me a really excellent tool for helping me to realize when it is time for a break. She told me about the acronym HALT: Hungry, Angry*, Lonely, Tired. If any of these conditions are present, the conversation is not going to be productive. You are not going to be able to come from a place of empathy and compassion.
*Note: Sometimes we need to express our anger in the moment, and that is perfect. However, if the anger is controlling you, if you are not able to express yourself without physical or verbal violence (name calling, put downs, blaming, or shaming) then it is time to HALT.
Use HALT at any point in the conversation it is needed, not just when you get to step three or four. If you don’t think you will be able to come back to the conversation in a short period of time, make an appointment to continue later. Don’t let the problem get swept under the rug just because you’re not feeling as bad about it for the time being. It will rear its ugly head bigger and badder than it did before.
Anyway…If you can get through all four steps (with or without repetitions and breaks), you are now ready to move on to step five.
5. Finally, time for the solution! To some people finding the solution is the hard part, but when the first four steps have been given adequate time and attention, the solution is often easy to find. Your empathy and compassion for your partner in this process will help you understand why they have come up with the solution they have and vice versa. You can often see alternatives to both plans and find a solution that works for both of you.
I would love to hear your definitions of empathy and compassion, and anything else you would like to share. So please post your comments below or send me an email.