heart with hands in sunset

Empathy Starts with Me

Story originally shared on CUInsight.

“Empathy is a hard skill to learn because mastery requires practice and practice means you’ll screw it up big time more than once. But that’s how practice works.” – Brené Brown

Empathy has become a topic for conversation now more than ever as credit unions strive to find ways to help their members get through this pandemic. And while the concept of empathy is simple, it’s not easy. Truly serving through empathy requires lots of practice and intentional effort to improve.

Just like strengthening any sort of muscle, building empathy can be draining both emotionally and mentally. There’s also not an “easy” button, or a “one way solves all” to practice empathy. However, here are five reminders to help as you practice:

Be present. 

For this, you don’t have to  say  anything, it is actually better if you don’t. Just do a better job of being there by tuning out distractions and tuning into non-verbal cues. Take a deep breath and truly listen – don’t just wait to give your response, jump ahead, or envision the end of the conversation.

Find your voice. 

Listen first to make sure you’re using your voice to support the other person. An easy way to do this is by relaying back what you’ve heard. This mirrors their vulnerability while also letting them know they’ve been heard.

When responding, recognize and validate others’ feelings. This can feel tricky, but empathy isn’t about endorsing or agreeing with the other person. It’s simply temporarily suspending your point of view and seeing from their vantage point. Feelings are always valid, but you do not need to validate actions.

Challenge your narrative. 

We can’t completely remove our judgments, but we can recognize them and challenge the stories we may be telling ourselves. Instead of making assumptions, ask questions to better understand the situation. Recognize also if your own mood is playing into your perceptions or interactions.

In-the-moment judgments, narratives, and assumptions can be tough to keep in check. Strengthen this skill by reflecting on your interactions. Recognize and celebrate your wins, learn from times where you could have improved. Empathy takes practice!

Ask curious questions. 

Cultivate your sense of curiosity. Curious people ask lots of questions, leading them to develop a stronger understanding of the people around them. Ask questions like: “Why?” “Tell me more…” or “That is interesting, how did you develop that idea?” The ability to imagine what someone else is feeling, even if we haven’t experienced it ourselves, is critical to empathy.

Not comfortable yet digging into conversations with these questions? Start by reading a book, listening to a podcast, or watch a documentary from/about a different perspective. Be mindful of pausing and reflecting on the ideas shared.

Follow up. 

Recognize and show appreciation for those who practice empathy around you. Celebrating these moments, no matter how simple, creates momentum and encouragement that push us forward.

Actions speak volumes but don’t feel the need to only take action for solutions. Instead, how can you demonstrate that someone was heard? Can you follow up with them after to check-in or say thank you?

Reminders are always helpful as we practice, so we’ve turned these five tips into a poster you can hang in your office or by your desk. If you’re reading this, know that you CAN make a difference by practicing empathy. Know that it will take some time to strengthen that muscle, but by doing these small things you will make a large impact.