Did you know that we’re all walking around with a connection superpower, but that few of us rarely utilize it (or even know it’s there)?
We spend our entire lives trying to figure out how to better connect with others. We try to understand what our bosses are really saying when they give us general feedback, we wonder what our significant other really means when they say, “it’s fine,” and we read between the lines of seemingly casual statements made by family members. (Because, in all of these situations, history tells us there’s more to the story.)
In our efforts to connect better with others, we spend our time trying to decode what the other person means by what they say (or what they don’t say). So, instead of connecting, we’re speaking and then analyzing while the other person speaks and then analyzing some more until the actual message gets buried.
Wouldn’t life be so much easier if we could inherently know what the other person means by what they say? Wouldn’t there be so many fewer communication blunders if we could all just read minds?
Well, we can. It’s all in the practice of empathy.
What It Really Means to Be Empathetic
When we hear certain words too often, they tend to lose the impact of their meaning. This is, sadly, the story of the word, “empathy.” It gets thrown around so much – and is often taken to be the same thing as “sympathy” – that the power behind it dissipates.
But make no mistake, empathy is powerful. In fact, empathy is a real-life human super power.
When we truly empathize with others, we come as close to reading minds as humans can get. When we turn off our analysis mechanisms and instead just listen and attempt to think from the other person’s point of view, the message becomes much clearer.
To be empathetic is not the same as to be sympathetic. When we sympathize, we extend our feelings towards the other person (to say, “I’m sorry you’re in pain,” is to sympathize). When we empathize, we can actually feel what the other person is feeling. And when we can feel what someone else feels, then we inherently understand what they’re trying to communicate.
Pretty powerful stuff, empathy.
There are two types of empathy: cognitive and affective. Put simply, cognitive empathy is the act of perspective-taking while affective empathy is engaging in a shared emotional response. Both types are equally important, but today we’re diving into cognitive empathy.
What Is Cognitive Empathy
We’ve all heard the old adage to walk in someone else’s shoes. Again, it’s one that’s been thrown around enough to have its meaning minimized, but when you really think about it, it expresses empathy at its core.
To walk in someone else’s shoes is to think about how you would feel if you were in their exact same situation. It’s not how you would feel as yourself in their situation, but as themselves in their situations. To walk in someone else’s shoes is to consider their perspective. And to do that is to practice cognitive empathy.
When we practice cognitive empathy (also know as perspective-taking), we focus on our ability to understand where a person is coming from. It relates heavily back to the platinum rule: instead of thinking about how we would like to be treated in a given situation, we think about how the other person would like to be treated in a given situation.
What Cognitive Empathy Looks Like in Daily Life
The reason words like, “empathy,” and phrases like, “walk in someone else’s shoes,” lose their meaning is because they sound really easy to do. But sometimes the things that sound the easiest to do are the hardest to truly understand. That’s why it’s so important to understand how they’re applied in daily life.
Here’s an example of how cognitive empathy can be done well in daily life:
Your friend has recently endured a heartbreak. While you feel for your friend, you’ve known for awhile that the significant other was bad news. Therefore, one part of you is sad for your friend – but the other part of you is actually kind of happy for your friend. As much pain as your friend is in now, you know how much better off the future looks.
As your friend talks about the situation, you could practice cognitive empathy by understanding exactly what your friend’s mindset is right now. That mindset doesn’t yet understand the significant other was bad news – in fact, it could take months for that to become clear. All your friend knows is that they feel heartbroken, alone, and possibly even rejected. When you focus on those three emotions, does any part of you feel happy for your friend anymore?
Probably not. Because, to consider the perspective of feeling heartbroken, alone, and rejected realizes that pain is the loudest emotion going on in your friend’s world right now. That pain is the emotion you need to empathize with; helping your friend heal from that pain is how you can best support them.
If you were merely being sympathetic, you wouldn’t think about the pain as much because you, from a distance, understand that the pain will be gone soon and that your friend’s life will be much happier in the end. But your friend doesn’t know that – can’t even begin to know that – right now. So if you were to focus on that, you would only be adding to your friend’s feelings of loneliness. Your friend would not only feel rejected by the ex-significant other, but your friend would also feel misunderstood by you.
To practice cognitive empathy in this situation (and all others) is to put your perspective aside for a minute and simply consider theirs. When you can place yourself in their world, the way you respond to them will change dramatically.
Situations like this are the hardest times to practice empathy. Because we’re a safe distance from the situation, it’s easier for us to see the good in even the most painful of times. But that’s not how we want to be treated when this happens to us – we simply want someone to understand how we’re feeling in that moment. And that’s what we must give to the most important people in our lives.
Cognitive Empathy Takes Practice
As parents, cognitive empathy is a challenge because we know our kids’ pain, but we also know how quickly they’ll bounce back and grow from it later.
As friends, cognitive empathy is difficult because our opinions of what they should do sometimes drown out an understanding of their true desires.
As coworkers and family members, cognitive empathy is hard because we have so much history with the other party that can lead us to judge their situations (instead of empathize with them).
As significant others, cognitive empathy is an extra challenge. We spend so much time with them that it can feel like they’re an extension of who we are, making it that much harder to remember that their perspective is still going to be different from our own.
The moral of the story is that cognitive empathy isn’t always easy, but with practice it can prevent us from a life of analyzing and questioning and never really connecting. Because, if we really want to know how to connect better, we simply must listen better.
The messages we’re trying to convey to one another aren’t as blurry as they may seem – the overlay of our own perspective is what blurs the message. When we can remove that, we can truly hear and understand the other party: a winning combination for connection – and the closest thing to mind reading we’ll ever get.
Image Credit: Tord Sollie