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Empathy is not solutioning

In my work with clients and tertiary learners, we often discuss the concept of empathy and how it can be practised in our interpersonal relationships.

According to verywellmind, empathy is

"the ability to emotionally understand what other people feel, see things from their point of view, and imagine yourself in their place. Essentially, it is putting yourself in someone else's position and feeling what they must be feeling."

I prefer understanding empathy simply as perspective taking without judgement (inspired by Brene Brown). Few discussions on empathy can go without mentioning her, since she is widely recognised as the go to expert on vulnerability, empathy and shame.

To go a step further, I would add the qualifier "without taking action". This is based on my observations after working with close to 1,000 individuals on the topic of empathy. Most of us are quick to include offering solutions while we convey empathy. Some reasons for this could be

  1. To make ourselves feel better by being actively involved in solving the perceived problem with a proposed solution

  2. To convince the other person that if we truly care, then we must want to and act on it

  3. We find it hard to accept that all we need to do is listen (yes, that's it, that's all!)

  4. "We have been down that road" so let's tell them "this is how I did it" so you can try that

  5. They "need" all the help that they can get so we must jump right in and do our part

As part of the facilitation I do with participants- we work with various case scenarios extracted from their personal, academic or professional lives to have them discuss empathetic responses to various scenarios. I've noticed that close to 80% will jump into offering solutions of a sequence of "how tos" or life hacks as part of the proposed response.

Upon further discussion, we realised that while proposed solutions are important, they may not always be welcome at the first instance so the considerations of timing, trust and context may come in useful in pausing before we offer a buffet of solutions.

So what should we do?

  1. Listen and pause to fully receive the intention of the statement shared

  2. Ask them how they would like to proceed or be supported

  3. Resist the urge to say "I understand" because that may not always be the case and it can get perceived as a mere token of acknowledgement & less sincere

  4. Suspend our opinion; yes you read that right: our opinion does not matter all the time

  5. Even if they say "what would you do, IF you were me?" Be upfront and remind them you probably may never fully understand and even if you did - you are at a totally different thought space so it would not be helpful to comment

If and only if they have expressed a desire to move into actively seeking resources and tools to make the next decision-you can offer to partner them and support them whatever ways they prefer so they can own their solutions.

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