Walking a mile in someone else’s shoes isn’t easy. A mile might seem awfully long if the shoes are too big, too small, not your style, or have holes in them. But the ability to slip into the shoes, the skin, or the story of another person is how we practice empathy and become better communicators.
In a program on clinical empathy at Duke University, oncologists are taught to “Never respond to a feeling with a fact.” When people are in distress, their ability to listen (and hear what is being said) is compromised. They just want their emotions – fear, sadness, confusion, anger – to be acknowledged. Ideally, the person on the other side of the conversation is adept at recognizing emotions and responding appropriately.
Howard Wainer has written that, “It is absolutely crucial to try to determine what information the receiver needs to hear and not let that be overwhelmed by other things that you may want to tell her…the core of effective communication is empathy.” One Duke-trained doctor asks himself before such encounters, “What is needed here?” The answer is not always facts or solutions.
On my computer monitor, I have a sticky note that says FAVE. It’s left over from a communication workshop I took. The acronym stands for “First Acknowledge, Validate, Empathize”. This is especially helpful to practice when you have a difficult or emotionally charged conversation to handle. Even if you don’t agree with someone, it’s important to listen first and acknowledge what you have heard by paraphrasing or repeating back the speaker’s words. Then validate that their feelings are grounded in a solid premise, that they are entitled to have them. Finally, empathize, let the person know that you can identify with those feelings, either because you have felt them yourself, or you imagine you could.
We all know how frustrating it can be to call a customer service number for product support. But even those interactions, where customers and agents inherently have conflicting needs, can often be improved by the use of empathy work. Researchers who studied employees at a telephone call center found that three types of skills – attentive, affective and cognitive – made the difference. The attentive skills were focused on active listening: repeating back, acknowledging, asking for more information and summarizing what was said. The affective skills dealt with being able to recognize customers’ feelings and identifying with them. The cognitive steps came last – taking the customer’s perspective, trying to provide help, and offering options. The most important part of the interaction was the attentive, being able to listen well enough to know what was needed. Sometimes people don’t want to hear, “I’m sorry”, they just want you to solve the problem. Other times, the apology is very much necessary. Attentiveness is key – “what is needed here?”
Have you ever heard, “You just don’t understand!” from someone you love? It hurts, because relationships matter and understanding is their foundation. Essentially, what each of us really wants is to have our story matter, to be heard, to be understood, to have someone else feel what we feel. Novelist Sue Monk Kidd has written, “Empathy is the most mysterious transaction that the human soul can have, and it’s accessible to all of us, but we have to give ourselves the opportunity to identify, to plunge ourselves in a story where we see the world from the bottom up or through another’s eyes or heart.”
Taking the plunge is the challenge for us. Diving into someone’s story, looking out through their eyes, walking in their shoes. Asking, “What is needed here?”