Hi all – how was your Halloween? I’m currently in San Francisco to see my sister and her babies, and had the chance to watch them trick or treat which was so incredibly cute. We had a red tailed hawk (I am not a fan of birds so that was funny), a fire monster (haha), and a cute little pirate. My mom went as a bat, my sister was a witch and I found a simple owl face costume. So random, but the kids thought it was funny and it allowed me to avoid face paint and wear yoga pants. So, clearly I was in. You can see some pictures on my Instagram.
Okay – on to today’s post. I really wanted to touch on something that I think is so incredibly important and is a little tricky to navigate. I’ve had it on my mind for quite some time, and thought it was due time I put it out into the universe (aka this blog), in hopes that it would offer some insight on how crucial it is to become a thoughtful listener, and to understand the art of empathy. It has such a powerful affect on those in our lives who need it, and can truly transform how you live your day to day life and connect with others. So, first thing’s first:
What is empathy?
It’s a word we hear all the time, but few know the real, true value and meaning. Empathy by definition is:
the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.
Why listening is the key to empathy
When we find the ability to listen and listen well, we not only open up ourselves to hearing new perspectives and point of view, but we challenge our mental state to go beyond our own personal experiences and to hear how life affects those around us.
One of life’s biggest challenges is to know how to empathize with someone without actually knowing what they’re going through. This is why the practice of listening is so incredibly important and goes beyond just using your ears. I know first hand from when I lost my dad how crucial it was, and still is, to get empathy from my friends and those in my life, rather than just their sympathy. Empathy is healing. It makes you feel less alone – like you’re understood.
How to practice deep listening and show empathy
Where you meet
- If you know you’ll be expected to lend an ear, try to recommend a place that doesn’t have much distraction or where you don’t anticipate seeing anyone that you know.
- Turn your phone off or put it to silent. Even if it feels tempting or habitual to take your phone out when there’s a lull moment during a conversation, try to resist and stay present in the moment.
- Focus on eye contact and address your body language. This is one I’m sure you’ve heard before, but it’s one that a lot of people can’t perfect and tend to ignore. Making eye contact will not only let the person feel like they’re being listened to, but it will bring you even closer together. Eye contact is truly one of the strongest ways to connect with another human, so don’t let this one fall by the wayside. Similar to this, your body language is a huge tell-all as to how well you’re listening. Sure, positioning is important (sitting across from them or next to them) but your body language is more specific to you and how you’re holding yourself. To ensure you’re being as receptive as possible, practice turning towards the person and finding a relaxed position. (i.e. don’t cross your arms)
- Acknowledge what they’re saying throughout the conversation (without interruption). In some ways, you should be able to repeat part of their story or what they’re speaking to you about, as a way to show that you’re listening on a deeper level, and you’re present there with them. Something I do when the time is right, is I’ll ask a helpful followup question. Maybe something like: “why do you think you feel that way?” or “what did that feel like when that happened?” Of course this depends on the conversation at hand, so just remember to be sensitive and aware.
It’s not about you
- Speaking of interruptions, don’t do that. Bite your tongue and do your very best to withhold any of your own personal stories unless they’re asked of you. This is one of the best abilities and habits of highly empathetic people.
How to empathize with those that are grieving
Since grief is one of the most crucial ways that we can support someone due to how painful it is, (and it’s also one of the most challenging ways to practice empathy if you haven’t experienced grief for yourself) I wanted to share some ways you can use your emotional intelligence to better someone’s life, simply by being there and listening on a deeper level.
Avoid asking how you can help. Just help.
You can do this in a variety of ways – but one way that sticks out to me is that right after my dad passed away (it was around midnight), my friends arranged for meals for the next day. The very last thing you want to do is eat, so that was really helpful to at least have the option at our disposal. Another way is to outsource help. You can hire them a cleaning person to come and clean their home, bring them their favorite tea with zero expectation of invading their space (just in case they aren’t ready), or offer/demand that you’ll be taking their kids or pets for the day or an overnight sleepover to give them a break.
Try to put yourself in their shoes.
Before you decide what to say, try your hardest to put yourself in their shoes. Would you want someone to say, “it will get better” or “everything happens for a reason” after you lost a loved one? I’m guessing no, and I’ll tell you from my experience it’s one of the most painful things you can hear, even though the intentions are usually pure. Try to get to the nitty gritty of how you would feel if that happened to you, and say what it is that would bring you the most comfort. When I’ve had to be there for my friends and family who have lost loved ones, I simply go with:
“I don’t have words. I only have love. I’m alongside you to help you through this – every step of the way.”
Don’t shut down or be afraid of emotions.
Emotions play a huge role when it comes to grief, and also when it comes to showing empathy. If you’re able to get down on their level and grieve alongside them, even better. When I’m able to cry or scream or just live in whatever emotion my grief is bringing me that day/week/month, I feel free. One of the hardest things for someone who’s grieving is to feel like they’re bringing down the room, or they’re ultra sensitive in feeling like they’re complaining, when really, they’re just feeling and working their way through a major loss. Giving them permission to feel their feelings and to do it alongside them is one of the best ways you can be empathetic, and to heal your loved one(s) in the process.
Don’t erase what happened.
Something else I can relate to first hand is the fear that your loss will be erased with time and silence. As time starts to pass, people will naturally stop bringing up what happened. Some may stop bringing up what happened in fear of making you “relapse” into your sadness. But here is the truth: the sadness only deepens when people act like it never happened. I talk about my dad all of the time, and encourage others to do the same. If you’re unsure if your friend/loved one wants to talk about it, or is sensitive to the subject, simply ask the question: “Does it make you feel good to talk about what (insert person’s name)? Or would you rather we didn’t?” I promise you, they’ll give you a direct straight answer, and from there, you’ll know how to approach the situation moving forward.
Even as someone who’s gone through grief and who’s needed empathy from others, I’m constantly working on practicing empathy to give to those in my life whenever and wherever it’s needed. This post comes with some experience, sure, but it’s also a post written for myself. I’m not perfect in this department (or any department!), but it’s something I’m aware of and trying to get better at every day. I truly believe that if we were all able to focus on empathy, deliver it appropriately, and truly experience other people’s point of views, we’d all be better off. I hope these help the next time you’re in a position to offer empathy, and that you, too, continue to open yourself up to the ability to help those around you – simply by listening. After all, it’s a super power. x1