Second Doorway to Compassion

Empathic Concern

Last week we looked at how cognitive empathy (understanding another’s perspective) can help you navigate difficult conversations during the holiday season. This week we explore another kind of empathy to help you through gnarly holiday gatherings: sensing what others need or what Daniel Goleman calls  “empathic concern.” This second doorway gets us one step closer to compassion.

If you understand what others are saying with cognitive empathy, you can then sense what they might need. Sometimes what they need is simply to feel connected to you and others or to be seen and heard. Oftentimes, one’s needs are unconscious and implicit. It’s helpful when people know and can tell you, but often they don’t.  

It takes attention and interest to sense what others need. It requires listening carefully to what they say. Their words often provide clues. In a recent conversation here are some of the words that were like bread crumbs leading me to what they needed: “tired,” “one small thing pushes me over the edge,” and “not enough.”

Often simply restating what you hear helps them hear their own needs. Asking good questions can also help surface people’s needs. It’s okay to ask directly about what other might need.

— What do you think you need in this moment?

— What do you need from me in this conversation? Silence? Saying back to you what I hear you saying? Asking questions?

An indirect approach is to pause, ground oneself and notice one’s body sensations, emotions, and thoughts. You could tentatively describe one or more of these to the other person and check if they are relevant or pertinent in any way to what they are experiencing. (I am surprised that I suddenly I feel anxious about this gathering. I have butterflies in my tummy. I wonder if this is similar to what you are experiencing right now?…If it is, what might help?) Regardless of whether you are on target or not, it usually helps others clarify for themselves what is going on inside and what they need.

Please be cautious about trying to sense another’s needs. Check your motivation. Why do you want to sense what they need? So you can try to help meet their needs? So you can prove how sensitive and smart you are? Or, so you can feel helpful and good about yourself? The first is about the needs of others, the latter two are about meeting your needs.

In the next blog we explore the last form of empathy: emotional or feeling what someone else feels.

Mary’s book “Talk Matters! Saving the World One Word at a Time” is now available.  Click here to purchase it.

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