How to do empathy: A simple model and practical demonstration courtesy of the hilarious sitcom Modern Family.
"Phil Dun-empa-phy" As the man himself would no doubt say.
I was watching an episode or Modern Family the other day, Two Monkeys and a Panda and saw Phil, the generally clueless dopey dad, discover - over the course of the episode - a simple way of demonstrating empathy. (Phil is my favourite character in the show - with three kids too, I am that dopey dad.)
The story line is simple, Phil has free tickets to the spa that he must use before they expire. During his relaxing experience, Claire his wife calls up with a problem, and Phil does what we are often guilty of by trying to solve the problem rather than demonstrate empathy. His abject failure to manage the situation prompts an advice session from the others at the spa. Then later at home he has another opportunity to practice and does it pretty much perfectly.
I cut together the key elements of the tale in this short video, have a look and see what you think, then I will break down for you the sure fire way of demonstrating empathy based on Phil's technique.
In learning how to demonstrate empathy, the first reminder for Phil is the key to the whole approach. It is all about demonstrating support and understanding, not about solutions.
It is so tempting when someone shares a problem to jump in with advice - ''Why dont you just..." "What I would do is..." etc
Think for a moment about how you personally respond to advice when you have a problem - do you take it? Maybe? Probably not? And how does it actually feel to have someone just jump in and say "Just do this" or "Why didnt you do that?"
And when attempting to demonstrate understanding first, what can you never say? What response does "I understand how you feel" get you?
So, the very first thing, put aside solutions for later and even then, when you get to solutions go easy on the advice, focus first on asking the person what might be possible.
So no solution, what then. Here are the magic three steps to demonstrate you understand how someone is feeling (ie empathy) without getting back a "You have no idea how I feel", or "you cant possibly know how I feel!".
Pacing refers to pacing the other person. Its an unconscious demonstration of empathy by matching the pace - energy, body language and tone - of the other person. These are the elements of communication that are usually unconscious and shape our perceptions. You have an opportunity to be a little more conscious with the perception you are generating. Very gently match the posture, body language and reflect back what the person says with similar tone and energy. Beware of copying, which will get you in trouble, just pay attention to what you observe, and reflect back a little of the emotional state of the other person.
Rephrasing is simple, whatever the other person expressed, once you have matched the tone, do you best to say it back to them in your own words, simply say what you think they meant. If you are accurate in your restatement they will indicate usually by nodding, or a verbal acknowledgement. If they think that you got it wrong, then guess what, they will put you right by restating their problem and then you just keep going and rephrase again until its right.
Reflecting is about reflecting the emotion and demonstrating you understand by naming the emotion. When you rephrase the persons statement as above, do your best to also add in an emotional word, which is your interpretation of how they are feeling. (Increasing your emotional vocabulary helps at this stage, which is a classic EQ measure here is a PDF list of 100 emotions for you). Maybe they are sad, depressed, frustrated, angry, excited, happy (yes empathy can be great in positive situations too!).
In summary: match their tone and body language, say back what they said in your own words and include an emotional word or two.
Then, like Phil does, keep going! Its not a one time thing, you still dont have to switch to solutions.
I had a good reminder the other day in a fairly dramatic, intensive leadership coaching session I used this technique,, and this technique only, for nearly two hours and then finally, and only after that, was the person ready to focus on solutions.
Now go practice! I find myself that having a go in the situations that arise with a partner, spouse or significant other can be a great opportunity to practice and perfect the skill. Eventually it can become second nature for you and like acquring any other skill you will naturally and unconsciously demonstrate empathy, building great long lasting friendships.
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