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The Benefits of Learning to Be More Empathetic


Co-Authors of "Conflict - The Unexpected Gift"

Psychologists define empathy as someone being sensitive to positive as well as negative emotions of other people. For example, you can be empathetic toward someone feeling happy or joyful as well as toward someone feeling disappointed or angry.

"Empathy is being in the heart of another person.”


Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, Executive Education Adjunct Faculty Member

Kuczmarski and her colleague, Emiliana Simon-Thomas, science director of the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, write that in addition to accepting the other person’s feelings without judging them, two other essential elements of being empathetic are “listening carefully” and “acknowledging to the speaker what you’ve heard them say.”

Empathy = Listening for Deep Understanding

In our book, Conflict—The Unexpected Gift, we agree that empathy includes "listening carefully" and "acknowledging to the speaker what you've heard them say," but we expand Empathy to be "Listening for Deep Understanding," which comprises the following four key components:

  1. Encouragement
  2. Clarification
  3. Restating
  4. Summarizing

ONE: Encourage.

Remain quiet while others are expressing their thoughts and feelings. Let your own assumptions that might intrude upon what they are saying fade away, acknowledging to yourself that what they are saying needs to occupy your full attention. Be interested in learning more about what they are saying. Ask open-ended questions to invite them to expand upon what they have said.

TWO: Clarify.

Focus on any statement the other person has made that is not completely clear to you and tell them why you haven’t been able to completely understand it. Ask them to restate it in a way that hopefully will be more understandable to you. Asking clarifying questions lets the other person know you are very interested in fully grasping the concerns and feelings behind what they are telling you.

THREE: Restate.

State in your own words the essential thoughts you heard the other person express. And, reflect to the speaker the deeply felt emotions you heard behind the speaker’s statements. The speaker may correct or make additions to what you’ve restated. If so, keep repeating and rephrasing in different ways what you’ve heard the other person say until the individual tells you she believes you have fully heard her.

FOUR: Summarize.

Tell the other person the main thoughts you’ve heard from them, rather than highly specific details they may have told you. Also, recalling the various feelings the other person has expressed to you, focus on the predominant feelings you believe you heard and communicate those to the individual.

How does "listening for deep understanding" help you become more empathetic?

Listening for deep understanding is what helps you focus directly on what a person says to you. It helps you ask clarifying questions you might otherwise not have had the insight to ask. It enables you to hear the feelings behind the statements a person makes. And it allows you to be more open to responses you can make that otherwise would not have found their way into your awareness. In the process of learning these skills, you have become a more empathetic human being.

What do you think? We'd love to hear from you!

The Essential Communication Handbook by Jack Hamilton and Elisabeth Seaman