How to show empathy during tough conversations

A little empathy makes a big difference to difficult conversations.

Empathy is the ability to recognise and acknowledge how someone else is feeling. You may not agree with those feelings. But you CAN recognise the other person’s point of view and show respect for it. Here’s how to show empathy in tough situations.

Stay focussed

To empathise, you must be attentive. Think of a time when you were upset and another person wasn’t listening to you. There’s nothing more aggravating than realising you haven’t got someone’s full attention. Show you are listening by adopting positive body language and making eye contact. Avoid fidgeting, interrupting and talking over the other person. Focus your entire attention on them.

Manage your own feelings

When someone else is angry or upset, it’s natural to want to defend yourself. You’re not showing empathy by doing this, however. You’re simply making the situation worse. Remain calm and focus on listening. Remind yourself that others; feelings belong to them. So do their opinions. No matter what another person does or says, you are in charge of your own reaction. And you can choose to focus on sorting out the situation, rather than being ruled by your feelings.

Track meta message

Meta messages are the meanings which are implicit within a communication. The building blocks of meta messages are verbal patterns, voice tones and body language. By observing these elements, you can work out what the other person is feeling. First listen to the words they are using. Next, watch for postural changes, gesture patterns and shifts in facial expressions. Listen to the other person’s tone and volume. Ask yourself ‘what does this person’s nonverbal behaviour tell me about how they feel?’ Choose a word to describe their emotions – e.g. worried, concerned, frustrated or upset.

Reflect back their entire message

Once the other person has finished talking, you need to show you’ve fully understood their message. You can do this by summarising what you’ve heard. This means acknowledging both the verbal and the nonverbal components of their message. A simple way to reflect is by using the formula ‘You think/feel/believe because…’ For example, ‘You feel upset because we missed the deadline.’ This shows you’ve understood how the other person is feeling and why they’re feeling this way. That’s empathy. By connecting with their feelings, you put yourself in a better position to settle differences and find solutions to problems.

Book one of our conflict resolution trainers to run a session for your team. Contact us now.