How do you practice empathy?

Every day is an opportunity to learn and grow. We learn a great deal by interacting with others as they cause us to reflect on our selves. This morning I had such an occasion. I had a phone call with someone in my family who owns a restaurant and recently lost his mother. I was surprised to hear him so upbeat and positive, but I kept my tone reserved and expressed my condolences. I was trying to express empathy for his situation, considering his restaurant has been closed for some time while also losing a close loved one. As I did so, he asked me why I was being so negative. This caught me off guard. How could I be perceived as negative? Me, the guy who tries to see the benefit in every situation?

Over the past year, I have found myself being careful not to be too cheerful or too expressive about how well things are going for me while others are suffering. I even stopped using my affirmation around people: “everything always works out for me”. It can be easy to slide into sympathy and pity when seeing other people experience difficult situations. I used to consider myself quite good at communicating with empathy. Unfortunately, now as every conversation seems to revolve around something to do with a pandemic, I may be sympathising more than empathising and at times even commiserating. This was not my intention but was made apparent to me when someone who didn’t need or want my sympathy told me I was being negative. 

As a coach, I am keenly aware of the difference between being empathetic and enabling a client to take on a victim role or even becoming emotionally invested in their problem. I thought that this carried over into my private life as well but as with anything, when a habit is not practised is no longer a habit. People genuinely appreciate when their situation or challenges are acknowledged. Good communication and quality relationships depend on some degree of empathy. It is an essential skill for leaders, colleagues, romantic partners, or friends. However, if you find yourself affirming someone’s problems rather than supporting the pursuit of a solution, you may be encouraging that person to remain stuck and feel helpless. 

Hope is an essential ingredient for navigating life. When we communicate with empathy, we meet people where there are without joining them in their distress. This can be the first step in helping someone change their perspective and emotional state so they can once again become hopeful. We have plenty of sources of bad news and people confirming what is wrong with the world. If more of us could practice empathy with positivity and optimism, we could provide an example to help others navigate their darkest times. This is the way that I intend to practise empathy and not just when I am coaching others.