By John Kinyon
Physical exercise for decades now has been popularly accepted as important to healthy living. Yoga and mindfulness/meditation have recently become commonly accepted as beneficial practices for health and higher functioning. Similarly, the many benefits of emotional intelligence, particularly empathy, are talked about and written about often these days. However, structured giving and receiving of empathic listening with one another is not yet commonly practiced in people’s daily and weekly lives. I believe structure is needed to reap the benefits of empathy and develop skill utilizing it. The benefits of empathy, and the emotional intelligence that goes with it, include: the ability to create the conditions for happiness and fulfilling relationships, stellar work performance, and outstanding leadership (from Search Inside Yourself, Chade-Meng Tan, 2012). Structured routines of exchanging empathic listening and speaking builds the habit of empathy, which in turn creates a culture of empathy in our personal and work lives, and leads to compassion and collaboration.
By empathy as a skill, I mean how we communicate in conversation, how we listen and talk with others, and with ourselves. The reason to “do empathy” is because it creates connection, within ourselves and with others, and it takes us out of the thinking that creates problems and into creativity that solves them in innovative ways. In this article, I offer some elements of empathy from my training, which incorporate and integrate mindfulness and communication skills. These elements of empathy are ways to practice and use the skills in your daily life and work.
The first element is presence. I define presence in empathy as listening from awareness, beyond thoughts and words, receiving the person speaking with openness and non-judging acceptance. It is listening as a mindfulness meditation, being present with them, giving them our full attention, not getting absorbed into our own automatic, habitual thinking. As you listen this way, not only do you track the content of what the speaker is saying, you listen beyond the words, with pure sense perception, such as to the tone and rhythm of the voice, the spaces between the words, and visually taking in the person’s body language without thinking about it. You are the awareness, aware of yourself and the other, and resting your focused attention on the speaker. Listening in this way is effortless ease and joyful pleasure.
The second element is understanding. Understanding someone’s point of view is not the same as agreement. Many people don’t have clarity on this distinction. When empathizing with someone as they are speaking to you, you can let them know what you hear them saying even if you disagree with it. The person may want you to agree with them, and think you are not empathizing with them unless you do. But this element of empathy, as I am defining it, is about trying to see how they see things, and get how they are feeling and what they want or not don’t want, without giving up what is true for you. This understanding can be reflecting back to the person what you hear them saying, or it can be done silently.
The third element is needs. In what people are saying, we can connect with universal needs at the core of their thoughts, feelings, and actions. Needs are what all of us humans need to survive and thrive, qualities such as love, safety, freedom, trust, support, empathy. But notice that these words are not about anyone doing anything. We don’t need anyone or anything in particular. Needs are qualities that human beings universally value and that are essential to survival, happiness and fulfillment. The reason this matters is that getting to the underlying needs in what someone is saying connects us at the level that we all share the same humanity, where we can feel we’re part of a larger whole together. There is a peace and relaxation that comes with making this connection, and a much greater ability to then find new creative solutions and work together to get everyone’s needs met.
These are the elements of empathy I work with — presence, understanding, and needs. They support creating connection, compassion, finding creative solutions to problems, and working together in powerful ways. The elements can be used to listen empathically to ourselves as well as to others, and they can also be used in how we speak and express ourselves. What I have found, however, is that it’s not just knowing how to use these elements. It’s about creating structures in which there is taking turns speaking and listening, intentionally using the skills, and doing this in our personal and work lives. Structure means the daily and weekly routines we create that form into habits, and once empathy is a habit it becomes part of the culture we live and work in. If we can create cultures of empathy in our own lives and organizations, we can build a world culture of compassion and collaboration. This is my dream. If you are interested in learning more about my work and trainings, visit www.johnkinyon.com.
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