Empathy: The Secret The Best Communicators Understand

I can hear you sigh: if only there was one simple rule for good communication skills. One cast-iron guaranteed way you can find the right thing to say to help you get that job, deal with your teen’s sulks, know when to argue and recognise when to apologise.

Well, worry no more. There’s one communication skill that outweighs all the practice in the world in making eye contact, nodding and matching people’s leg-crossings.

 
Not that those things don’t help you communicate better, of course. They do. But they work because of this one special gift we can all share.
 
Have you guessed it yet?
 
Ok, for those of you who didn’t already scan down the page to peek, I’ll tell you. It’s empathy. The big E.
 
The magic silver bullet you need to succeed.
 
Empathy is the ability to feel what another person feels, understand his point of view and imagine what he’s thinking. Or, as Native Americans (possibly) have said, “to walk a mile in another man’s moccasins.” Or woman’s, obviously.
 
 
© Clarita | Dreamstime Stock Photos
 

When you understand the person you’re talking to, you can tailor your messages to suit them. If they’re cross, you may use a calm voice to deflect their anger. If they’re worried, you could ask what’s wrong, or if they’re anxious, you may want to offer support.

Now I hear you wonder why, if this fabulous gift is out there and free of charge, we aren’t all grabbing it and working our silver-tongued magic on everyone from the car salesman to our toddler with a tantrum.

The answer is that although some degree of empathy seems to be hard-wired in our brains, making use of it is a skill, and like any skill, it takes hard work and practice to grow it. Lots of practice. Plus determination, focus, time, effort and all the other difficult stuff you thought you could leave behind when you left school.

Oh, I feel your pain (laughs cruelly). You thought it was going to be easy.

On the other hand, you can work on it while you watch TV, trawl through Twitter and flirt with Facebook.

When you feel empathy, when you understand the way the other person thinks, you react in a way that means something to them.

In the simplest terms, it means you don’t laugh when someone tells you their cat died. You may be a dog person, and think all cats are witches’ familiars, but you know enough about the cat’s owner to feel at least a little of their sorrow.

 
 

Empathy comes more easily to some than to others, like all human traits.Work to improve your empathy and you’ll find your communication skills develop automatically.

Find out what other people feel and think by watching them and listening to them. Their body language gives you plenty of clues. Here are a few hints:

1 She tends to look at the floor rather than at you: she’s paying attention to how she feels inside, she may be shy, not confident, may even be upset.

2 He makes great eye contact: he feels happy, confident and friendly.

3 She folds her arms: whoops, she’s anxious or nervous, or wants you to keep your distance.

4 He strokes his hair or touches his face: he cares what you think about him.

5 She speaks in a high voice: she’s nervous, or likes to be like a little girl (think Minnie Mouse).

There are hundreds of types of body language. Don’t forget to watch conversations between others or on the screen to pick up some clues. Learn to recognise ‘tells’: the tiny movements or the eyes, or hands, or facial muscles people use that give them away when they’re nervous, telling lies or trying to sell you something. That’s how poker players operate.

Once you see how someone feels it’s far easier to talk to her.

Why not do a spot of people-watching, next time you’re on the bus or in a restaurant?

What have you noticed people doing that gives you a clue about them? I’d love to hear your stories.