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The Art of Building Empathy and Rapport

“To walk in someone else’s shoes” is probably one of the most common metaphors used when we think about what it’s like being someone else. 

This simple skill, to be able to have complete empathy and understanding of someone’s situation and how they are feeling is a valuable tool to have and use in all areas of life. It is also one that can be immensely enjoyable and satisfying to use well. We can use it in situations where we are finding it difficult to understand someone or where our own opinions are getting in the way, to help diffuse a potentially threatening situation, or to simply connect at a deeper level with someone.

So what exactly does building empathy with someone really mean?

Well in simplistic terms it means what would it be like if we were that person, to experience what they are experiencing and by leaving aside any of our own beliefs, judgements and feelings so that our communication is clear and clean of anything you might bring unintentionally. Not always an easy thing to do especially when it is with someone we are close to. By building empathy we are also then building deep rapport because when we show that we understand someone completely they feel more understood. Building empathy is all about understanding the other person. This brings me on to the next point which is recognising that by understanding the other person you don’t need to agree with them. If judgements sneak in they need to be acknowledged by you and then put to one side to be looked at afterwards. You can build empathy with someone and then come to the conclusion afterwards that your view of them hasn’t changed, or you disagree. Yet whilst in the act of building empathy and rapport with them the focus is only on them.

How do we build empathy?

Building empathy is really about doing lots of little and important things well:

  • Really look at the other person’s body language and then subtly and precisely incorporate some or all of what you are noticing into your own body language. This will allow you to gain information about their physical state and hence their state of mind. Specifically look at their posture, their eye contact/movements, their facial expression and breathing. You can then start to become aware of their voice; the tone, pace, pitch, volume. Once you have noticed some or all of these things start to mirror a few of them in a subtle way. This allows you to really get a sense of what it is like for them and even more importantly they will see that you really understand them.
  • Pay attention to what language they are using and if any words are repeated often, indicating they are important. One of the simplest ways to show you understand someone is by occasionally repeating certain words they are using. By doing this you are also then more conscious about what is important to them.
  • You can even act as if you have their same beliefs so for instance if someone says “I just can’t do anything about this situation” rather than consoling them give yourself a moment to imagine what that feels like for them to have that belief and you will then be in a better position to respond with something appropriate.

Much research has been done into the way we communicate and to the importance of non-verbal messages. You have probably heard how our words account for very little when we communicate but may not have seen a breakdown;

7% – the words we use

38% – the way we say them –tone, volume etc…

55% – non verbal signals- posture, gestures etc…

So a staggering 93% of your ability to communicate what you are trying to say is coming from things apart from the words you use. So if our non verbal communication is not congruent with the words we are using it is unsurprising that we might not be understood based on the words we use. This shows how important it is to focus on non verbal signals when we want to understand someone and just as importantly using them in the way we respond. If you have ever listened to and been carried away by an inspiring speech and then wondered after what they actually said, here is your explanation – it can be content-free and still qualify as a great success!

If you then think about the way you receive communication from others, it becomes evident that there is far more to being a good listener than just hearing the words. As described above it is about listening with your whole body and as such is a skill that needs practising.

Here are a few other pointers;

  • Your mind will need to be completely focused on the person you are listening to, not on what you might say next, nor on tomorrows’ problems.
  • Your eyes will be collecting lots of information about the person you are talking to, from their clothes to their emotional state and your gaze will stay with them not wander about the room.
  • Your ears will be busy not just hearing the words, but also the tone of voice, hesitancy and everything about the way something is said.
  • Your mouth will generally be shut, opening occasionally to offer some encouraging words to show you understand.
  • Your body will reflect the posture of the person who is talking. If they are sitting then it’s not nice to stand over them. If they are relaxed and laid back, so will you be. It’s not about mimicking them but matching their style, so they can see you are in tune with them. Equally if they are looking nervous and being twitchy you should also match that to a subtle degree. So if they are moving around and tapping their fingers you could move around and tap your feet sporadically, being aware that when they calm down so should you.

Although this may all sound rather prescriptive and forced it is something that you can just try elements of to begin with. Or simply notice what you can observe that you haven’t done before. To become an expert at building rapport the next step is to learn more about the language and words we use and how we can use them to maximum effect, to then lead someone along with us and allow them to see things from our perspective.

Contact me to book your free consultation or read more about a NLP Presupposition related to rapport and empathy.

By Lawrence Michaels

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