Can you recall a recent time when you were feeling upset?
Were you alone? Were you able to talk to someone?
Can you remember how you felt afterwards?
If you talked to someone that really understood you, you probably felt the touch of empathy.
Empathy (from the Greek empatheia: em – in + pathos – feeling) is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another (Oxford Dictionary).
The American psychologist Carl Rogers, one of the founders of the humanistic approach in psychotherapy, did a lot of research on the topic of empathy. His research has influenced greatly the way that empathic listening is approached in the field of mental health today.
Why would empathy be important to us? Let’s look at these areas:
“When someone really hears you without passing judgement on you, without trying to take responsibility for you, without trying to mould you it feels damn good!” (Carl Rogers). Our feelings of wellbeing improve when someone truly hears us, so being on the receiving end of empathy is beneficial to us.
Interestingly enough, research shows that being really present and understanding another person also decreases the levels of stress of the listener, even if the story heard is painful and difficult. When we truly hear someone, even if we are only thinking for our own benefit, it is still a win-win situation.
“When a person realizes he has been deeply heard, his eyes moisten… it is as though he were saying: Thank God somebody heard me. Someone knows what it’s like to be me” (Carl Rogers). When a person feels understood, apart from the individual feeling of wellbeing, a sense of connection develops with the person hearing them. If we are that person, then we would also be benefiting from the connection.
Once people have felt this sense of empathy, they can pass it on and be role models for others, as we have been for them.
We can bring those feelings of wellbeing and connection to the organizations where we work. With decreased stress levels people in a work place will feel happier, which leads to increased productivity and better results for the company.
This would be a good reason to encourage managers to consider their interactions with their employees, actively listening actually brings more financial rewards in the long run.
We learn to listen to other people’s stories. Other times we talk about our own pain and happiness with someone that understands us (maybe a friend, a colleague or a counsellor). And through our connections in empathy, we allow our healing to unfold and help others in their own processes of healing.
We become companions on the journey of life and we can continue to support others or be supported even from a different place and time… The memory of an understanding smile, a loving word or gesture can stay with us and bring back to life the healing power of empathy when we most need it.