Over 50 years ago, Carl Rogers named ‘accurate empathy’ as one of three essential characteristics for effective therapy. A plethora of research has been carried out since then, building evidence to support the effectiveness of empathy in therapy. Empathy builds meaningful connections and closeness in relationships. It's also a word that's often banded around, becoming a bit of a buzzword - without people necessarily stopping to think about what it actually means.
Empathy is a complex process - it’s very difficult to really know (I mean, really know) how another person feels. When I was studying and training to be a therapist, my tutor taught me that empathy, in short, means ‘emotional understanding’.
Sympathy, on the other hand, is feeling for others - not the same as emotional understanding - although it involves an intellectual understanding of the other person’s experience.
People get an immense amount from being completely seen, and fully understood. It takes a lot more than sympathy to make someone feel seen, and heard. Sympathy doesn’t work - it doesn’t foster meaningful connection or closeness, and sometimes it drives a wedge further between you and the other person.
One step towards real empathy is to keep your assumptions in check - practice differentiating between what is yours and what is theirs. We call this ‘bracketing’. Bracketing means taking into account what you hear - and only what you hear. Put all of your own assumptions, based on your own feelings and experiences, in brackets for now. Do not make interpretations or jump to conclusions. Very often, whether we realise it or not, we project our own feelings onto the other person. This will edge us closer and closer to the realms of sympathy again - which is likely to be based on you and your feelings - meaning that your response will most likely be about you. Empathy is not about you. This is not about how you would respond in that situation, is it about how they are responding to their situation - and understanding that emotionally.
We won’t be able to empathise if we don’t have a willingness to see things from others’ perspectives. It does require us to be a little open-minded, and put aside any judgements that might pop into our heads while someone is talking to us. Those need to be bracketed, along with our assumptions, as quickly as they appear in our minds.
“I am human and let nothing human be alien to me” - Erich Fromm
Open up every part of yourself to allow a whole person in while they speak to you. If you feel judgemental or like you’re shutting down at certain points, it might be worth considering why you keep those parts of yourself closed.
'Listening' is another word, much like empathy, that we hear, use and think we’re doing so often. More often than not, though, what we are doing is listening in order to respond; meaning the whole time someone is talking, we’re listening with one ear, whilst also thinking of what we will say next - or sometimes, planning what we want to say next and then pretty much just waiting it out until it’s our turn to speak. When we empathise, we are listening to understand. This means that we might have to take a moment before we respond - but it makes our response more meaningful, and increases the chances that the other person has felt heard. Listening is a vital part of accessing another person’s inner world - if we don't listen well, it's very hard to understand a person.
Brene Brown put together a beautiful little video which succinctly explains the differences between sympathy and empathy here: