5 min read

Chasing Empathy

I don’t think it’s actually possible to have empathy.

This was my conclusion after a long debate a few years ago. It was a pseudo-philosophical debate, the type you have in college when you're young and dumb enough to think you have all the answers.

Empathy is knowing how someone feels. How could you have that depth of knowledge, how could you know all of their circumstances, and how that affects how they feel now? It didn’t seem possible to me.

Looking back, I realize I came to this conclusion without even trying. It was just intellectual navel-gazing. But empathy is a recursive process. The act of trying to learn about someone makes you want to learn more about them. And that makes them want to learn about you.

My understanding of empathy has evolved due to three books, “The Courage to be Disliked,” “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” and “Never Split the Difference.” The path to empathy is a complicated and long journey. While these three books gave me the context, strategy, and tactics of empathy, my implementation of the ideas has lagged. My behavior is so ingrained that I react before thinking to put the techniques into practice.

In “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”, Stephen Covey says that “the essence of empathic listening is not that you agree with someone; it’s that you fully, deeply, understand that person, emotionally as well as intellectually.” He continues, “empathy is not sympathy. Sympathy is a form of agreement, a form of judgment.”

Why is Empathy Important?

In “The Courage to be Disliked,” we learn that expectations cause most of the conflicts in interpersonal relationships. One side expects the other side to behave a certain way and is disappointed when they don’t. If each side has a “separation of tasks,” these problems are avoided. Each side must realize what they are responsible for and what they must let go of. These tasks aren’t just a to-do list, they range from emotions to thoughts to actions.

Empathy allows each party to understand this separation of tasks. As an example, we can compare how I react to getting sick to how I reacted when my wife recently had a cold.

When I get sick, I look at it as a challenge. My defenses have been breached. Alarms are going off.

What did I do wrong to get sick (not to flagellate myself, but to correct in the future)? Have I not been getting enough sleep? Did I drink too much recently? Have I not been getting enough exercise?

How do I get better? Prioritize going to sleep early for the next few days. Do nasal irrigation. Sauna. What therapies would work? Plan meals around hot soups.

This system works for me. Since I rarely get sick and I recover quickly, I don’t relate to people when they’re sick. Feelings don’t enter the picture for me, it’s black and white: are you doing what you can to get better, yes or no? The gap in my understanding is that the obvious problem is often not the problem that other people are trying to address. Derek Sivers says, “If all it took was knowledge, we’d all be billionaires with six-pack abs.” Empathy is the process of connecting with someone to understand what the underlying issue is. It’s the prep work before the real work. It’s like finding the right language to communicate in, or finding the right key to open a door.

When my wife got sick, I used my experience to tell her how to take care of herself. But she didn’t want solutions, she didn’t want to hear what she did wrong. She wanted to know that I was there for her and that I felt her pain. The problem wasn’t the physical manifestation of the illness, it was how she felt about it. The problem was me not listening.

When I pointed out causes and solutions for my wife’s cold, I was taking on her tasks as my own. Instead, I needed to listen and figure out my tasks versus hers. By separating her tasks from mine, I would be able to support her as she did them herself instead of inserting my priorities on top of hers. This understanding is empathy.

How to be Strategically Empathic

The fifth habit of Stephen Covey’s “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” is “Seek first to understand, then be understood.” Only by trying to understand someone else will you develop a relationship where they will listen to you. Since I didn’t seek to understand my wife when she was sick, there was no chance she would try to understand me.

Covey explains how the actual act of communication builds a relationship:

As you authentically seek to understand, as you rephrase content and reflect feeling, you give him psychological air. You also help him work through his own thoughts and feelings. As he grows in his confidence of your sincere desire to really listen and understand, the barrier between what’s going on inside him and what’s actually being communicated to you disappears.

But you must not come from a place of manipulation:

The skills will not be effective unless they come from a sincere desire to understand.

Covey sums up his explanation of empathy thusly:

The key is to genuinely seek the welfare of the individual, to listen with empathy, to let the person get to the problem and the solution at his own pace and time. Layer upon layer—it’s like peeling an onion until you get to the soft inner core.

How to be Tactically Empathic

“Never Split the Difference,” by Chris Voss gives specific techniques to increase your empathy. He calls it “Tactical Empathy.” It’s the ability “to think from another person’s point of view while they were talking with that person and quickly assess what was driving them.”

This is what I should have done when my wife was sick, but I was too wrapped up in asserting my knowledge.

The goal of Tactical Empathy is to “spot their feelings, turn them into words, and then very calmly and respectfully repeat their emotions back to them.”

Two of the techniques in Tactical Empathy:

  1. Mirror/Pause - Repeat the last three words that were said and pause to allow the other person to rephrase their demand.
  2. Labeling - Label the other person’s emotions. For example, “It seems like ______.” You want to acknowledge the other person’s emotions.

Employing Tactical empathy will get you to the goal: a “That’s right!” - You want to paraphrase their emotions so that their response is “That’s right!” You need to demonstrate that you understand them so well that they recognize that you do.

Needless to say, I didn’t apply my learning when my wife first got sick. I was my usual self, wanting to solve the problem I saw rather than finding out what she was going through and supporting her. My ego told me that I had the answers and didn’t allow the space to empathize.

When she brought up that she felt sick, what did I do? I changed the subject. I asked if she took her vitamins and got enough sleep. I assumed she would deal with it. Instead, I should have reassured her that I would be there for her and that I cared for her health.

Luckily, after a short disagreement, my wife and I reached a moment of understanding despite my doing everything wrong. My wife told me that she felt that I didn’t care. That moment of vulnerability led to us finding out that we had misunderstood each other. We shared our experiences and expectations of being sick, and now we know what we expect from each other. This wasn’t a life-changing moment, but big problems can grow out of small problems. It’s a step in my journey of understanding empathy on a personal level.

Empathy opens the door to communication and learning. Just as reading something isn’t doing, communicating isn’t just saying words. You have to do it through a medium of trust and understanding.