I once took a very powerful assessment that said I possess an extremely low level of compassion. In other words, empathy is a struggle for me. I literally argued with this assessment. How could I be a pastor and an executive coach but have so little empathy? It was ludicrous for me to think about and, honestly, very disappointing. I didn’t feel as if I could be an effective minister without a high level of empathy.
As my executive coach examined the results of the assessment with me, we concluded that the evaluation was correct; I am naturally cold toward people’s issues. There is nothing wrong with me; this is just my personality. Thankfully, I’ve worked to overcome this inadequacy, and I want to share what I’ve learned with you today. I feel as if this information could help you in a tremendous way.
A few years ago, I went to a Townsend Institute Conference in California. Though I really had no idea what to expect, I believed it would be like most conferences I’d been to. I would sit in a crowd of people and listen to a speaker as I learned from his message. There was some of that, but what the conference really focused on surprised me.
I spent hours in a small room with a cohort group of eleven people whom I had never met. In process groups we were taught about the virtues of empathy. We learned how to accommodate one another and tune into each other’s emotions with empathy, and we practiced these exercises for many hours.
I must admit, I thought the practice was odd at first. I had never experienced anything like it before; but when we left the conference, I had an new, amazing realization of the power of empathy. I walked away with an extremely useful skill. Though empathy was not one of my natural gifts, I learned how to use empathy in a way that I didn’t know was even possible prior to that experience. Empathy changes lives. When you use empathy to relate to someone’s experiences, it powerfully connects you to the individual who’s hurting and can potentially bring healing to the devastated person.
Romans 12:15 says, "Rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep." This is just one of many scriptures that speak of empathy. Empathy is discussed all throughout the Bible. Honestly, even though I read those verses many times, they really didn’t come alive for me until after the learning process of the Townsend Institute Conference. I had experienced empathy in my life from people who were naturally good at it, like a good counselor and friends. I saw empathy practiced all of my life, but because empathy was not one of my natural giftings, I really didn't understand the impact it could have. I understand now just how beneficial empathy can be to a hurting person.
I now try to purposefully use empathy every day in my life and ministry. I use it with my kids and my wife especially as I attempt to understand what they’re experiencing in the moment. It makes an important difference in how I love, care, and bond with them.
As a pastor, I often have people come into my office wanting me to “fix” things for them or give them advice. In years past, I was quick to give a piece of my mind in the form of good advice and guidance. People would leave with an answer that they generally already knew before they even came to speak with me. They would go away with a sense of confirmation to move forward, but I didn’t provide what most people were truly seeking emotionally.
Ecclesiastes 3:7 says, “A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak." There are times when giving advice is needed, but I think there are more times when being there for a person while providing emotional support is more important. Proverbs 17:27 tells us, "He that hath knowledge spareth his words: and a man of understanding is of an excellent spirit."
Another powerful scripture in Proverbs says, "Counsel in the heart of man is like deep water; but a man of understanding will draw it out" (20:5). Most of the time, the things presented on the outside of a person are not the true picture of what they are really experiencing. There are usually deeper issues and needs that should be addressed. Truthfully, we all really want and need certain relational nutrients from the key individuals in our lives. We want people to connect with us without judgment and to understand the significance of what we're going through. At times, we want someone to share a similar story, or we simply want support or encouragement. The problem is that most people don’t know how to ask for these things.
The most impactful of these relational nutrients is acceptance. A close second is what we’re talking about today, empathy. Empathy is the act of connecting to what another person is experiencing. Jesus exampled this in such a profound way when He connected with the woman at the well in John Chapter 4. This story is such a powerful example of empathy.
When we provide empathy for those important relationships in our lives, we can connect to those close to us in a way that allows them to become relationally full. When I learned this truth and made the shift in the way that I was connecting with people, it transformed my relationships and improved the results of my connections. I can now bond to the individuals in my office, and they leave feeling warm and full. I give most of the credit for that success to the use of empathy.
I have to constantly push against my natural inclination to provide advice and solutions. I must work at connecting with people relationally through the use of empathy as I communicate my love and concern. I must make the effort to be present with people through the difficult times in their lives. When people come to me seeking advice, most of the time they know exactly what to do; they have the answers within them. They simply don’t have the relational bonding and connection to confidently fulfill the answer that they already have.
I love the power of empathy. It’s the greatest tool that I use in coaching, pastoral counseling, and the relationships of everyday life. I want to teach you how to use empathy and tune in to what other people experience. You can always enroll in Townsend Institute; that’s where I learned it, but I don’t think that’s necessary for everyone. Some of you are naturally empathetic; and that’s a tremendous gift to have. But I bet that many of you are like me and need a little help. The good news is that you don’t have to overcomplicate things. Here are some practical steps to help you integrate empathy into your relationships.
Get out of your own thoughts and listen. What’s the person saying? What does their body language communicate? What sort of facial expressions are they presenting? Does their body language line up with what they’re saying? Get out of your own head, set aside your own thoughts, and listen to what the other person has to say.
Name the emotion that you’re seeing. Is it anger? Frustration? Sadness? Incorporate what you see into dialogue. For example, say, “You seem like you’re happy today.” Don’t be concerned about being right; simply identify the emotions you see. Another example is to say something like, “John, it looks like you’re really sad right now.”
Wait for confirmation or clarification. If John isn’t sad, he won’t be upset that you tried to name what he was feeling and got it wrong. He will simply correct you. He may say, “No, I’m actually frustrated that I’m having to deal with the same thing over and over.” It doesn’t matter if you get the emotion right or not; naming the emotion with sincerity allows you to connect and bond with the person. Naming the emotion also brings clarification to the individual. This may be the first time this person has ever used words to describe what they’re feeling inside, and you helped them do it.
As you’re listening, reflect on the words the person speaks. Reiterate to the person what you heard them say. For example, say, “I’m hearing you say that you’re frustrated because you’re dealing with the same thing over and over.”
Pause, and let the person talk. When you pause and reflect, the person will usually give a deeper explanation about the situation if there is trust built into your relationship. This practice allows the person to talk about those things which are obviously very difficult for them, helping them break free of their own thoughts as they begin to release their stress and anxiety in the form of words.
This is the five-step process for implementing a greater amount of empathy into your life. The process is obviously not going to happen exactly like this every time, but as long as you push against your desire to give perspective, insight, or advice and simply be with the person and empathize with what’s going on inside of them, they will most likely walk away from the conversation feeling connected and satisfied. It’s not just about the warm, fuzzy feeling, though. You’re actually giving them the relational nutrients needed to help them overcome the problem they’re experiencing. You’re giving them the profound solution they didn't even know they were seeking.
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