How To Build Your Empathetic Skills
As discussed in our earlier blog post on How Empathy Helps with Anger, cultivating good empathetic skills will support you in transforming aggressive anger into an emotion that is purposeful and builds relationships instead of destroying them. In essence having empathy is the ability to step into someone else’s shoes in order to see and feel things from their perspective, which is essentially the opposite of aggression.
Expressing empathy forges strong relationships as showing empathy invites empathy back. Those who experience empathy from their significant others generally report better outcomes in all aspects of the relationship. For many people empathy comes naturally, but for other’s it’s more of a learned response.
The good news is that we can rewire our brains towards empathy and away from aggression.
Empathy is hard wired into us through mirror neurons in our brains and these neurons play a key role in our ability to empathise and socialise with others because we tend to communicate our emotions mostly through facial expressions. So what is required to cultivate a more empathetic approach, especially in the heat of the moment when it counts the most? Here are a few places to start:
Expressing our thoughts, feelings and opinions clearly and effectively is only one part of the communication process the other part is through active listening. Active listening is to be fully present within the conversation with no distractions. You cannot be fully present if you are playing on a device, looking around, thinking about other matters or fidgeting because you are in a hurry. These actions will signal to the other party that you are not interested in communicating with them. Active listening is the opposite of these behaviors’ and includes encouraging the other person to keep talking, let them know you are following the conversation, ensure your tone of voice is non-threatening and above all let the speaker know that you are attentive and interested. Even if you don’t agree with what they are saying, active listening teaches you to appreciate different options and perspectives, and to clarify points should a misunderstanding occur.
Once the art of active listening is in place, the next step is being truly vulnerable within the conversation. This is especially difficult as being vulnerable lies at the heart of our greatest fears linked to shame and judgment. Brene Brown, an authority on vulnerability, asserts that silence and judgment fuels feelings of shame, and that in order to release ourselves from shame we must name even our most hidden feelings. Whilst you may have grown up believing vulnerability is a weakness, we now know that being vulnerable is in fact a sign of inner strength. Expressing your own vulnerability is the single most important thing you can do to foster empathy, your own and others. Opening yourself up and honestly communicating how you feel will invite sincerity back. Empathy is based upon mutual understanding and this is achieved by exchanging our most important beliefs and experiences, which are usually also our darkest and most shameful.
Intentionally cultivating curiosity is a pre-cursor to building empathy. Being curious means you generate an authentic interest in the lived experience of the other person. It means really wanting to know the how, what, why and where of a situation. It means going deeper below the surface to gather information that completes the picture, instead of just processing information that confirms your own beliefs. Being curious will strengthen your mind and will open you up to new ideas. Without curiosity your ideas stagnate as there is nothing new to activate them but when curiosity is the intention it opens up a whole new set of possibilities that you literally cannot see without a curious mind. Some ways to build your curiosity are to keep an open mind, don’t take things for granted, ask questions often and stop using labels. The minute we label someone as boring, unfriendly or even angry we literally slam the door shut on any seeing them in any other way.
In order to be empathetic, one has to suspend all judgment. If you truly want to understand another person’s motives and move beyond anger and aggression you will need to reach out to the other person in a safe way in order to connect. You can’t do this if you are judging them at the same time. Judgment is the greatest roadblock to harmonious relationships, and the place where hurts can be the deepest, and trigger the strongest reactions. Choosing to listen and be curious over judging every word, action or plan will bring about real connection. The more connected you feel, the more open you become about your experiences and the conversation moves from anger to honesty and then to authenticity.
Through building up your empathy you will find your way to a place of compassion for others, and that is where long-lasting, life-enhancing solutions are found. Empathy is literally your springboard to mutual goals, mutual respect and mutual benefits.
If you’ve made the decision to shift from anger and aggression to empathy and understanding then our complete anger management course will help you reach your goals. Just by working your way through this online anger course you will step through anger to calm in no time!