9 Keys to Connecting with Empathy

Many people have no clue about how to connect with others on an emotional level. They don’t see the reason. “All that emotional ‘touchy feely stuff’ is useless!” they might say, “So why bother?”.


Two reasons:


First, the “emotional stuff” affects your work life. The research indicates that, if a group of people have a similar IQ, the most important indicator of career success is a person’s EQ (Emotional Intelligence Quotient). In the real world, this seems obvious: If you have 3 different plumbers work on your pipes, and one is clearly more personable, understanding, flexible and keeps her promises, which one will get your repeat business?  That’s right. And that repeat business translates into career success— not just “touchy feely stuff.”


Second, the “emotional stuff” affects your personal life. If you want to have lasting, authentic and powerfully satisfying relationships, you need to have a decent EQ. If you are an intensely logical and intellectual person, you may have great difficulty relating to the expressive, tender, spontaneous, joyful and sensual part of yourself – or anyone else, for that matter. If you ever need to deal with someone in distress — a boss, co-worker, spouse, child, etc, you will want to have some skills in the EQ department.


One of the most important emotional skills to boost your EQ is the ability to be empathetic. Empathy is different than sympathy. In practical terms, sympathy is more feeling FOR someone, while empathy is feeling WITH someone as if you were in it together. Sympathy says, “I feel really bad that happened to you,” while Empathy says, “Oh, man, that just gave me cold chills to hear you say that!”. Or Empathy could forego the words and simply bond by laughing or crying together.


When people feel deeply connected through empathy, their level of distress will decrease and level of confidence will increase. The person can more easily “regulate” their emotions by engaging with you.


So if you want to really make that connection, here are 9 keys to empathy:


  1. Match the person. At least at first, mirror the persons body posture, tone or voice and even, to some extent their emotion. If they are angry, you can sound a little upset too. If they are weeping, don’t be afraid to let yourself connect with your sadness too. I know this sounds counter-intuitive, but think about it: When you are really angry or anxious or grieving, how do you feel when somebody softly and calmly says, “Now calm down. . . you don’t need to get all worked up about this.”


Do you feel understood? No way. You feel like that person is out of sync with your world. You might even react by saying, “What do you MEAN, CALM DOWN??? I have every right to be angry, don’t you get that??”


So when someone is raging, you could come up and say something like, “Whoa, man! This looks really intense around here! What’s going down?” Suddenly they will likely see you have an ally, that really “gets it.”


  1. Eye Contact. Make some eye contact, but not too much that will feel invasive or threatening.


  1. Body Posture. Take the approximate body posture of the other person. If they are sitting, you should sit. If their legs are crossed, you can cross yours. Don’t mimic, just approximate the position. Also, bring yourself along side the person if possible either parallel or at an angle. Sitting, standing or even lying down next to a person helps them to feel you are “beside them” rather than blocking them.


  1. Seek to Understand. Ask the person to share what’s going on for them right now. DON’T INTERRUPT THEM. Don’t plan your response. Don’t cross-examine them. Don’t defend yourself. Just listen, listen, listen. See my blog post on the Talking Stick Dialogue that can transform your communication.


  1. Reflect Back their feelings in personal terms. If they have been expressing their fears, you could say, “If I were you, I’d be scared too.” If they expressed anger, you could respond, “I can see how you’d be really mad about this.” If they are frustrated, you could say, “Man, that sounds like it really sucks!” If they are sad, you could say, “I feel sad just hearing how tough it is for you.”


In contrast to how psychologists use reflective listening, you can interject your personal feelings into it. Instead of saying, “You’re really upset,” like a psychologist might, you can say, “That would make me blow a gasket too!” Can you feel how first is more distant and clinical and the last is more like, “I’m in this with you!” ?


  1. Additive Empathy. When you heighten the feeling of the other person by “adding to” the level of feeling they expressed, this can be a very bonding experience. So your friend says,“I felt bad that he left me.” By using additive empathy, you heighten the expressed emotion with something like, “Not only bad – it felt like you were betrayed!” Or, “Oh for sure ‘bad’ — and angry besides! You had already bought your wedding dress!” When you use additive empathy, you are making your friend’s case even better than he or she does! And that gift can really make your friend feel like you totally understand her. “Yeah!” she might say, “that’s really how it is!”


  1. Additive Sequencing. One of the ways that you can really be great at empathy is to think of the 2-4-6-8 sequence. One of the ways that people know you are REALLY listening and paying attention, is when the person lists a sequence of events or ideas, and you can build on that pattern. In essence, the person says “2. . . 4. . . 6. . . .” And you are able to say, “8 !”Because you have been paying attention and connecting on a deep level, you are able to suggest a logical addition to the sequence.


For instance, if the jilted bride says, “We had sent all the invitations, the gifts were pouring in, and I had bought my dress, too!”  You can build on that sequence in an attuned way, by adding, “And you paid for the caterer and photographer too! What a drag!” Do you see how much better the connection feels with that response, rather than a response that disrupts the train of thought or worse, changes the entire subject?


  1. The next important step is to validate the other person’s point of view. You don’t need to agree with them, but it is important that you can affirm that they aren’t crazy. After you have listened to them deeply, you can express something like, “Wow, I had no idea. I can see how you would feel that way. . . “ or “For sure. It makes sense that you would be so upset.” Don’t lie and say, “I’d feel that way too,” if you really wouldn’t. But you can tell them that it makes sense from their perspective.


  1. Stay with them. Many times, we leave a distressed person because we don’t want to deal with them. But many times, even though they are struggling, they want support. Of course, if they look dangerous, you must make sure you are safe — which may mean leaving the scene. But often, even when people are very upset, they appreciate it if you don’t abandon them in their distress. If they want to leave YOU, go ahead and give them space, but if they aren’t fleeing, consider just staying calm in the same room while they calm down. It can mean a lot.



After the person has calmed down, you can think about problem solving. But until the person’s escalated physiology has returned to baseline, you can’t make much progress to solve anything. Please read my post on “Regulate, Relate, Reason” for the reasons that our brains need empathy before problem-solving.





September 21, 2018

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