When I started learning to empathize with others, at first, I found myself awkwardly guessing their feelings and needs (often, incorrectly). Gradually, I built my feelings and needs vocabulary, and eventually, I was able to guess feelings and needs more easily and more accurately. However, my empathic reflections still felt somewhat awkward and contrived. I’d hit a roadblock in my empathic development. To overcome this roadblock, I started learning everything I could about empathy, and I started questioning my basic assumptions about what empathy is all about.
It’s More About Being than Doing
Originally, I’d learned that empathy involves focusing on (and sensing) the other person’s feelings and needs, giving verbal reflections of those feelings and needs when appropriate, and staying present. I’d been working on developing these basic empathy skills for years, but I knew something was missing.
I eventually realized I needed to let go of the idea of doing something; I shifted my intention to simply be present—with empathy. In the resulting state of empathic presence, my experience includes an ongoing empathic sensing of what’s going on in myself and others. My verbal expressions (and other actions) happen spontaneously, within the context of that ongoing empathic sensing.
(I make a distinction between mindfulness and empathic presence. Mindfulness is independent of the contents of experience—we can be mindful of any experience. Empathic presence is mindfulness that includes something specific: an empathic sensing of the feelings, needs, and perspectives of those around us.)
It’s Spontaneous, Expressive, and Compassionate
Empathic presence is unstructured; there’s no way to predict what response may arise. The actions that arise are unique responses to the particular situations in which I find myself.
Entering a state of empathic presence involves:
- quieting my mind,
- expanding my awareness to include a respectful understanding of both my experience and the experience of others, and
- noticing whether any action is being called for on my part.
The actions that arise could be verbal reflections of my understanding of what’s arising in someone else (that is, empathic reflections), expressions of what’s arising in me (that is, self-expression), or something else entirely. Even if my intention is mostly to be with someone else as they explore their experience, there may be times when self-expression is called for on my part. For example, perhaps I’m having trouble understanding something the other person is expressing, or perhaps I’m curious about some aspect of the other person’s experience that isn’t fully making sense to me.
I find that resting in empathic presence gives rise to a spontaneous compassion. As I sense my experience and the experience of others, with presence and care, my response is a spontaneous desire to contribute to our well-being. This helps me trust that my actions are likely to be beneficial—and this trust helps me approach interactions with others with more authenticity and relaxed confidence. This, in turn, may help others trust me—allowing us both to relax into mutual trust and authenticity.
It’s About Experience—Not Just Feelings and Needs
I got another insight into empathic presence when I read some of Carl Rogers’ books (especially Client-Centered Therapy). Based on this reading, my empathic focus expanded from the other person’s feelings and needs to the other person’s total experience. In my opinion, fully empathizing with another person requires my willingness and ability to be mindful of the totality of their experience—including not only their feelings and needs, but also their perspectives (their understandings and ideas—which may be different from my own). I invite you to develop your capacity to be present to anything and everything that’s arising in another person’s experience, with a quality of unconditional positive regard for that person.
Here are some questions you might ask yourself to help develop empathic presence:
- Can I sense not just the other person’s feelings and needs, but the totality of their present experience?
- What are their present feelings, thoughts, values, ideas, wishes, beliefs, perspectives, and so forth?
- What is front and center in their awareness, and what is faintly showing up at the edges?
- Can I be present to the totality of their experience—fully accepting it?
- Can I hold a space for them to be in the fullness of their present experience, conveying a sense of genuine and authentic unconditional positive regard for them, no matter what they may be experiencing?
Photo Tranquil (by Gemma Stiles) is used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.