The most important ingredient of empathy is mindful presence: I am here with you in order to listen to what you want to share from your world, from your truth. I listen with open curiosity and full acceptance of the universal human experience that may flow through the words you share.
When I lose connection to your words, I will ask for clarification and I am willing to give back the meaning of what I hear as faithfully as I am able to, if you wish to hear back from me.
Carl Rogers discovered the power of this non-judgmental human presence, in terms of recent Western advances in psychology. On a different level of human history this form of listening is as old as humanity itself and has been known for thousands of years. It is truly empowering for people to open up their inner world when another person is offering this compassionate, non-judgmental space; it empowers a sharing person to go deeper into the feelings and the needs that are alive in her. It is as if the presence of another human being helps us to embrace our own pain in a healing kind of manner, resulting in a sense of deep connection and hope moving forward.
In daily life we encounter in ourselves and others many moments, when we respond to complaints and grievances with non-empathy, such as: ignoring the message or belittling its significance, giving advice, fixing the problem with some kind of action, educating someone, one-upping it with our own stories and a quite a few more.
I want to give an example from my own life.
While we sit at breakfast, my wife shares an interaction with one of her girl friends from the day before. She says: “When I was telling my girl friend that I have been on a diet for more than eight weeks and that I am hopeful that I can keep my weight, she snapped at me with an angry voice ‘Do you know of anyone who ever was able to keep their weight in the long run?!’ ” I was really taken aback by this.
I responded: “You know well, that she is unhappy about her weight and at the moment does not find any energy to start a diet. You should have been mindful of her difficult situation.”
When I say this, I wrong my wife and try to educate her to do it better next time. This is not empathy, this is (unasked for) education.
Sympathy might sound like this: “Wow, this is so painful! I wish you would have better friends!”
Empathy might sound like: “Are you feeling sad thinking of this and do you have a need for celebration?” This might not be the need alive, but if I am open and curious my wife will tell me more, if the need for celebration does not resonate or if there is more.