This blog post was originally published as a guest post on the yogatailor blog here
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 and speaking with one another is not yet commonly practiced in people’s daily lives. I believe a certain kind of structure is needed to reap the benefits of empathy and develop skill utilizing it.
By empathy as a skill, I mean how we communicate in conversation, how we listen and talk with others, and with ourselves. "Doing empathy” creates connection. 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 our Mediate Your Life training. These elements incorporate and integrate mindfulness into communication skills, and give practical ways to use the skills in your daily life and work.
ELEMENTS OF EMPATHY
The first element is presence. This element is about resting your full attention on the other person while you are speaking or listening. It is present moment awareness that is not thinking or "efforting." As listener, it is listening in mindfulness, being present with them, not getting absorbed in your own thinking. It is paying attention to things such as the speaker's rhythm and tone, the spaces between the words, and visually taking in their nonverbal body language. As speaker, it is letting your words flow from awareness and presence with the listener.
The second element is understanding. Understanding is different than agreement. Many people don’t have clarity on this distinction. When listening to someone, 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, but empathy, as I am defining it, is about trying to see how they see things, how they are feeling, and what they want or don’t want, separate from what is true for you. You can reflect back to the person what you hear them saying, or offer silent understanding. Similarly when you are speaking, empathic understanding is communicating how you see things from your perspective and how you feel about it, without trying to get the listener to agree with you. You are simply asking to be heard for your experience.
The third element is needs. In listening or speaking, we can connect with universal needs at the core of 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 need and value, that are essential to well being, happiness and fulfillment. The reason to get to the underlying needs is that it connects us at the level that we all share the same humanity, where we experience being part of a larger whole together. There is a peace and sense of connection that comes with this, and a much greater ability to then find new creative solutions and work together to get everyone’s needs met.
BUILDING A CULURE OF EMPATHY
These elements of empathy — presence, understanding, needs — create connection and working together to find creative solutions to problems. I have found that it’s not just knowing how to use these skills. It’s about developing a regular practice in which you take turns speaking and listening, and intentionally use the skills. This can be done at work as well as in personal life. It is in the daily and weekly routines that habits form that then become 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 in which compassion and collaboration is the norm.