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How to transform tough conversations with empathy

In person and from a distance, communicating is something we humans do every day.

Whether we’re at school, work, or with family members, friends or partners, we’re constantly conversing with each other in one way or another. The surprising part about all of this is how bad we are at it, especially when it comes to those difficult chats most of us spend time rehearsing...and ahem, avoiding.

And seeing communication is as necessary and regular as breathing—this is no small problem.

But we don’t have to avoid tough conversations or hide our needs and wants. Communicating effectively—and empathically—can be learned. As we learn more about ourselves in relationships, we become more aware and willing to accept the fact that we’re not perfect.

Maybe there are things we can change about ourselves, like how we respond to conflict.

Understanding our physiological responses to stressors is important, too. You know how your body does strange things when your senses are heightened? Quick shallow breathing, tightened and tense muscles, overheating or getting red in the face, tummy aches or headaches...etc.

Sound familiar? That’s your sympathetic nervous system sending a rush of hormones to make sure your body is ultra-alert. This is also known as 'fight or flight’. Recognising these signs your body is giving you, and learning how to manage them can help you keep your cool and face a difficult conversation head-on.

Two people talking side-by-side.

@priscilladupreez via Unsplash

How we develop empathy

Being self-aware and willing to embrace ongoing emotional development—and maturity—in our lives helps us to see both sides of a situation and give us the space to diffuse or help balance conversations.

People tend to think about development and maturity for kids but they ignore or are unconscious to their own need to continue developing in their adult years. We need to continue pursuing our own personal development throughout life.

When we do this development work, and then lead with empathy, our conversations can be more productive and we also gain a better understanding of others. What exactly is empathy?

A couple of decades ago, researchers in Italy discovered that when a monkey saw a human grab a fistful of raisins, the same brain cells fired up as when the monkey held their own raisin. This has led to further neuroscience studies that have informed how, like the monkey, humans can feel the pain and joy that others experience, even without raisins as a visual aid.

The science of empathy in the brain

In your brain, fired-up cells called mirror neurons act to connect us by way of empathic relatedness and emotional attachment. So, that’s the science behind empathy, but what really is empathy?

It’s the ability to understand what another person might be going through and to feel it with them.

Empathy helps us relate to others, it also informs our own emotional awareness and helps us to regulate our emotions, and it promotes compassion which moves us to action. Although we’re hard-wired to be empathic creatures, we still have the ability to choose how to respond in a situation.

When the right supramarginal gyrus—the part of the brain that helps us to identify nonverbal cues by others—doesn’t work correctly, or when we have to make a decision in a pinch, we can struggle to choose empathy.

But choosing it is worth the struggle—as we gain perspective and insight into another's life.

There are three types of empathy; cognitive empathy, emotional empathy and compassionate empathy. If you’re a manager, you might use cognitive empathy to gauge your employees to figure out the best management techniques to build trust and camaraderie within your team. Emotional empathy is what you rely on when you hear that your friend’s mom has passed away, and compassionate empathy is what might drive you to help a stranger in need.

Practical ways to use empathy in your conversations

1. Assume the best.

One trick that can help when you are dealing with difficult conversations, is to go into it with an open mind and assume that the intentions of the other person are good.

When you expect the person you’re talking to has your best interest at heart, you’re less likely to get defensive and more likely to be able to really hear and understand.

You’ll have a much clearer picture of what’s actually being said, not to mention what’s going on behind the words—aka, the nonverbal stuff.

2. Listen well.

But don’t just listen, really try to hear and comprehend what the other person is trying to say. This is where those nonverbal cues can come in handy.

Give the person on the other end of the conversation the time and space they need to speak and—if it helps—try to repeat back what you heard them say. This can help avoid misunderstandings and get to the root of any issues.

3. Consider feedback.

Before you react, reflect. Don’t jump to conclusions or take a defensive stance, instead, take a deep breath, and mull the conversation over in your head for a few.

If you are truly operating out of empathy, you should be able to put yourself in the other person’s shoes and understand why they said what they said.

Instead of focusing on any bruised feelings you may have, work on developing resilience and appreciating the differing opinions and perspectives of others.

What are some ways you approach difficult conversations? Is empathy one of the tools you use to communicate more effectively? Let us know at foundations@koahealth.com.