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.


Three Steps To Improving the Way You Listen: key communication skills

Do you know someone who thinks they’re a great communicator but who drives you crazy? Maybe he has a fund of stories that he rolls out at every opportunity, whether you’ve heard them before or not.
Or maybe he caps every remark you make with one of his own. You know how it goes. You say, “I broke my foot,” and he says, “I did that last year and the doctor said it was the worst fracture he ever saw.”
A teenager I know started at a new school so she had to catch a different bus in the morning.The first day, she came home full of enthusiasm for a new friend.
“He’s so funny,” she said. “We just laughed all the way. I nearly fell off my seat.”
I bet you can guess how she felt after two weeks.
“I’m hoping he won’t be on the bus today,” she said. “He never shuts up and it’s all about himself.”
Yes, you may be more shy, less extrovert, more self-conscious than others: but chances are you’re a better communicator if you take the time to listen instead of talking.
Here’s how to do it in three easy steps:
1 Make sure you really understand what someone is saying to you. Ask questions to keep yourself focused on him. “What happened next?” or “Why do you think that happened?” Who/what/when/how/where/why questions are a great way to keep the conversation going.
2 Check back with him that you’ve understood. “So you didn’t enjoy the day at the sea?”
3 Watch his body language. If he’s looking down, or out of the window, he may be really upset. If he’s leaning back and smiling, things are OK. Be sensitive to his mood: his dating disaster may sound funny to you but if he’s devastated, it’s cruel to laugh.
TOP TIP You can help change  his mood if he’s miserable. Get him to look up at you and he’ll  feel a little better. We don’t say “chin up” for nothing. (Don’t say “chin up” by the way. It’s annoying. Just stand back so he looks up at you. That’s subtle.)
Got more top tips on listening? I love to hear them. Just leave a comment and spread the word.


Communication Kit: don’t jump to conclusions

My grandfather used to say, “Everyone’s mad except you and me, and sometimes you’re a bit strange”. That’s the cleaned up version, anyway.

I thought about this when I sat drinking coffee with a bunch of colleagues. I watched them and marvelled at their differences. I tried to guess what their behaviour meant.

Jane was talkative and nervous as a kitten. She laughed often and fiddled with her hair. Was she anxious and upset? Or was she excited about something so good she couldn’t wait to tell us?

Laura sat back and spoke rarely. Every comment was appropriate, and each one seemed to put a full stop to the discussion. Was she bored, or was she taking in everything she heard? Was she shy, or does she just prefer not to talk much?

Helen kept trying to pull the conversation back to the original topic. “Yes, but that’s not the point,” she said three times. Is she a control freak, or did she really want an answer to a question that mattered to her? Was it frustrating to her that we wouldn’t take her seriously?

Sarah said, “I’m sorry, am I talking too much?” the second time she spoke. Was she anxious that people won’t like her, and think her pushy, or was she passive-aggressively pointing out that others were dominating the conversation?

Imogen tapped the table with a pen, as though she couldn’t wait to be somewhere else. Was Imogen anxious and worried about something, or did she just have a tune running through her head?

The way we communicate with each other is so subtle, so full of richness and difference, and we give off constant signals about our personalities and our state of mind. Every one of us behaves differently from every one else.

So, beware of ‘mind-reading’. Most signals can mean more than one thing.

There is always more than one way to read another’s behaviour. Maybe we should hold back our criticisms of each other and look for other reasons when we see behaviour we don’t find appealing.

Often, the key to understanding can be simply finding out a little more about someone. When we’re in a group, we behave in a ‘public’ way. Before we next meet for coffee, I plan to spend a few minutes alone with at least one of my colleagues. If I want to understand her behaviour, I need to build some rapport with her, and find out what makes her tick. Maybe even start to see the world from her point of view and stop trying to read her mind.

I hope you enjoyed this post. Have you ever found someone’s behaviour difficult to understand? Do you sometimes get it wrong because you don’t know as much as you thought about someone? Do some people drive you mad, but you can’t put your finger on the reason? Let me know. I’d love to hear your experiences.

Verbal and Non-Verbal Communication Skills: ten golden rules

Even introverts like to talk to other people sometimes, and it gets easier if you follow a few simple rules.

Mostly, we learn these rules by trial and error, sometimes called bitter experience. Boy, can the experience hurt. Ever had someone look over your shoulder to find someone more interesting while you’re talking? That’s one sign you may need to work on your skills.

Don’t despair. You too can become an expert communicator. Start with some of these tips.

• Speak more slowly. Your listener’s brain has to remember your sentences, then decode the words and grammar before he can understand your message. It takes time. Talk too fast and you’ll be misunderstood.

• Pause between phrases and sentences. Give your listener a chance to catch up and to react.

• Use short sentences. You can only hold seven things in your memory at one time. If you pack your sentences full, your listener will miss something. Say important things as simply as possible.

• Match your body language to your meaning. How often do you say, “I’m listening” to your child, while your eyes slide away to your computer screen or TV? Do you ever say “yes,” while your expression says “no”? Avoid giving mixed messages.

• Make eye contact with your listener. She finds it easier to listen to you and you make a connection: the eyes aren’t called “the windows to the soul” for nothing.

• Check your tone of voice. Sound impatient and that’s all your listener hears. He won’t notice your words: we all know now that most messages come from our non-verbal language.

• Listen to the other person. It’s so easy to plan your next sentences, forgetting to listen to the answer. Watch TV interviewers and see how often they ask a question that’s already been answered, because they forgot to listen.

• Watch for the other person’s body language. Notice his crossed arms or when he leans away from you, showing that he’s feeling defensive. Watch when his body language mirrors yours, showing he feels empathy with you.

• Give a context to what you say. Don’t launch straight in to a set of instructions or questions, but set the scene first. Your listener needs time to adjust to the new topic. Phrases such as “can we talk about arrangements for the weekend,” tune her in, help her start thinking and make it easier for her to understand.

• Take turns. Let the other person finish what they have to say and avoid interrupting. This matters even more in a tricky situation, when an interruption signals that you are not prepared to consider another’s point of view.

Here’s a Quick Way To Take Control Of Your Nerves: Communication Skills That Work

Good breathing patterns are vital communication skills, and few people realise how powerful they can be. Learn to control your breathing and you’ll find it easier to manage difficult situations.
When you feel nervous, angry or frightened, your body takes over.  We’ve all experienced the rapid heartbeat, sweating and fast breathing of our body’s fight or flight mechanism. It’s possible to control those feelings, using simple techniques that leave you fired up and ready to do your best in the situation, while remaining calm enough to control what you do.
Breathing patterns
One of the simplest ways to get on top of your body’s responses is through your breathing. With a little practice, you can improve your breathing patterns, reducing your stress levels and gaining control over potentially scary situations like giving presentations, calming angry clients, helping your child overcome tantrums and making your point more forcefully in meetings. 
Take control
Breathing is an automatic function that continues, controlled by your brain, even when you’re asleep. The rate of breathing changes, getting faster when your body sends chemical bursts around your body, for example when you begin to feel anxious, and slower when you relax. Many people breathe shallowly, using the top of their lungs. Learn how to breathe more deeply and slowly.
Try sitting or lying quietly and comfortably, and breathe out, counting slowly to four, before breathing in, again to a count of four. You may be surprised at how slowly and deeply it’s possible to breathe. Notice how slower breathing helps you feel relaxed. Try different depths of breath, noticing how your stomach moves in and out when you take good, deep, effective breaths.
If you lie down to practice, take care when you finish your practice to get up slowly, to avoid dizziness.
Calm your anxiety
Next time you feel anxious, take a second to breathe out fully. Your incoming breath will be deeper and fuller. Focus on the outgoing breath. You can leave it to your brain to make sure your incoming breath is deep enough to replace the air you breathe out: that’s how it keeps you alive.
Pass it on
When a child or friend feels stressed, their breathing will be rapid. Your calming words may be ineffective for them, as they focus in on their feelings to the exclusion of anything else. Instead of relying on speech alone, try matching your breathing to theirs. 
Breathe in when they breathe in, and breathe out when they do. Once you are synchronised, start to slow your outgoing breath slightly. You’ll find they’ll follow you and calm down a little.
Speaking and breathing
When you match your breathing pattern to that of another person, you also match your speech patterns. We speak on an outgoing breath, so as you breathe in, there will be a silence. That silence slows your speech rate, and calms the atmosphere. It also helps the other person understand what you say more easily. A slower speech rate, with pauses, improves communication.
The added excitement, perhaps even the fear, of speaking in front of others, can play havoc with breathing and speech patterns. You may talk much faster than you realise. Trying to talk slowly can be difficult because the intensity of the situation may distort your sense of time. Instead, concentrate on your breathing patterns. Count slowly in your head, before you begin speaking, and establish a slower pattern that helps you feel in control.
Making an impact
When you have control of your breath, you can manage the way you speak. In general, good speakers speak more slowly, pause more often and use fewer words, with clearer emphasis, than poor speakers use. To control a meeting, ensure others listen to your arguments and make your points better, use your breathing patterns to underpin your speech rate.
Here are some more of our posts on better communication: