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.

Five Fictional Heroes


The best fictional characters jump off the page. Full of charisma, they have a little quirk or two and maybe a fatal flaw. Who cares what they look like? Your imagination fills that in for you. Start a conversation about your favourite novel or fictional hero, though, and you may be surprised at how much you disagree with other people.
© Dana Rothstein | Dreamstime Stock Photos
Whether you swoon over Mr Darcy or adore Jack Reacher, maybe it’s worth wondering why he appeals so much to you. It could tell you something about your own personality and values.
Here are five male characters from fiction: do you love them or hate them?
Mr Darcy
No matter how hard I try, I do not like this Pride and Prejudice hero. He may be strong, have hidden depths of kindness and generosity, but I can never forgive him for his rudeness to Elizabeth Bennett at the Ball. Not only does he say she is not handsome enough to tempt him, but he also has no interest in women “slighted by other men.”
Now, I don’t mind him holding those views, but I do mind him talking about them in a voice loud enough for other people to hear. To me, that is cruel and unforgiveable. No amount of kindness to his sister, or even to Elizabeth’s family, is enough to make me forget that, in his heart, he does not care whether he hurts someone’s feelings.
Anyone who has ever suffered the indignity of being a wallflower at the dance, even if it was only for ten minutes, will know what I mean.
Mr Micawber
 I love this Dickens character, from David Copperfield. He is foolish, lazy and selfish,    but I forgive him everything because of his optimism. The glass is always about to  overflow, until disaster strikes. Yet, he bounces back. Something will always “turn up.”
“Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.”
My finances, like his, rely heavily on something turning up.
Jack Reacher
I feel no need to care for Lee Child’s hero. He likes himself enough for both of us. The books are fun, though.
George Smiley
John Le Carre’s fictional spy is so sad, my heart goes out to him. He’s too clever for his own good, he’s married to a rich woman who deserts him and he has no problem with killing people. I think it’s maybe the spectacles that I love. Thank you, science, for contact lenses.
Lucky Jim
Is it possible not to identify with Kingsley Amis’s downtrodden loser? As he lurches from one disaster to another, he fights intellectual snobbery. I cheer for him as he wins tiny childish battles against authority by making faces behind his boss’s back. I defy anyone who has ever done that to fail to identify with Jim.   
What does all this say about me? That I admire kindness, self-control, optimism, childish humour and the valiant underdog.I hate cruelty, self-love and snobbery.
How about you?
Writing your own fiction? Here’s what Novel Writing Help has to say about creating characters.