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Have you ever been tongue-tied over what to say to someone? An important part of having empathy is to reflect on what another person is experiencing and take appropriate action. But, have you ever been in a situation where you just didn’t know how to take action or respond appropriately? For example, maybe someone just told you that her father died. What could you possibly say or do that would make them feel better in that situation? You probably worried about offending them or sounding insincere. The skills of empathy can help you to respond appropriately. In this blog post, we will go through five techniques for responding empathetically:

1. Offer help
2. Control your emotions
3. Take action
4. Know when to withhold action
5. Follow up

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Offer help. Some people honestly don’t want help. Or, maybe they do want help, but not from you. As harsh as that sounds, it might be true and you should respect that wish. After all, empathy isn’t about you. So before you dive in and try to help someone, find out if the person wants your help. Help can take on a variety of forms: help can be good advice, it could be a ride to work or a shoulder to cry on. When you recognize that someone might need your help, simply ask them. Be prepared to hear no and respect their answer. A lot of people have a hard time accepting help.

Control your emotions. In her book, The Art of Empathy, Karla McLaren talks about a key part of empathy called emotion contagion. Emotion contagion is what allows you to sense that another person is experiencing a certain emotion or that an emotion is expected of you. While emotion contagion is a necessary part of empathy, if you experience strong contagion, you will have a hard time helping the person in need. For example, imagine an emotion is a contagious disease, like the flu. If you have the flu and your caretakers catch it from you, it will be hard for them to help you get better.

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Take action. Once a person has accepted your offer to help, it’s time to take action. McLaren refers to your decision to respond or act based on your empathy as perceptive engagement. Sometimes knowing the right thing to do is hard. This is where your previous training in empathy will come in handy. By this point, you understand what the person is going through and you’ve listened to the problem. Now ask yourself, ‘If I were in this situation, what would I want someone to do for me?’ Put yourself in the shoes of the person you’re trying to help and take action, empathetically.

Know when to withhold action. Sometimes people just want to be left alone. Maybe they need time to sort out their problems on their own. Perhaps they don’t feel comfortable talking to you about the issue. Whatever the reason, part of being empathetic means knowing when not to take action. It doesn’t matter what you want to do. What matters is that you respect the needs and wants of the person in need. Sometimes the most empathetic response is actually to do nothing at all.

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Follow up. Whether you helped the person or your help was denied, following up with someone in need is very important. Let’s go back to the example of the person who lost her father. Chances are, right after her father died, she had a lot of support from her friends and family. However, as time went on, people assumed that she had healed, so they left her alone and didn’t bring up the topic of her father’s death again. But it’s important to remember that the healing process is long. Even though she might not be showing outward signs of grief, like crying, she is probably still suffering on the inside.

If you know that a person was struggling with a problem, don’t assume that everything is resolved just because it hasn’t been brought up in a while. Make a point to reach out to the person and check in. If your help was previously denied, maybe it was because he or she wasn’t ready to accept your help, but now some time has passed and he or she could use you. You’ll never know if you don’t ask.

Remember these tips the next time that you find yourself in a situation where you don’t know how to respond. If you do, you will put yourself in the other person’s shoes and respond in an appropriate, meaningful way.

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