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EMPATHY STATEMENTS

4.  Empathy Statements. The fourth Reflective Listening skill is a sophisticated special case of Rephrasing. I've pointed out that the two major goals of Reflective Listening skills are to clarify and to reinforce. Rephrasing generally focuses on the first of these two goals. Empathy Statements are designed to satisfy both goals, but with a greater emphasis on any motivating system's linchpin, reinforcement.

Like Rephrasing statements in general, Empathy Statements encourage the speaker to talk, to elaborate on his or her comments, so that you can get further information. They also indicate to the other person that you have been listening to what he is saying. But in focusing primarily on how the speaker is feeling, rather than simply on the information he is expressing, they do one thing that other Rephrasing statements do not: they serve to defuse feelings of anger and resentment, and thus to calm an agitated speaker down. Obviously, someone who is calm and attentive is going to be far easier to motivate than someone who is preoccupied and distracted by his anger.

Consider again the first example from the section on Rephrasing. Let's assume that in response to his initial Rephrased statement, the supervisor learns from the worker that it is indeed the breaking machines that have him going up the wall.  He might carry the conversation forward with the following Empathy Statement: "I can see how you must be feeling frustrated, Roger, with the machines going off all the time." Such a statement has the advantage not only of focusing on the real cause for Roger's frustration, but also of letting him know that the supervisor understands and accepts his emotion.

That is what every good Empathy Statement does. It lets an angry, or nervous, or otherwise upset speaker know that, as far as his feelings go, he is not alone: somebody else understands.  This has the immediate effect, in the vast majority of cases I have witnessed, of defusing the negative feelings—even where the situation that has created them has not changed.

Given the centrality of emotion in every person's general psychology, this is not really too surprising.  R. D. Laing and other students of schizophrenia have pointed out that the one sure way to isolate an individual from human interaction, the one way to ensure that he or she will be unable to communicate effectively with others, is to label his or her feelings as either "mad" or "bad." Empathy Statements do exactly the opposite thing: they label the speaker's feelings as acceptable, understandable, in short as valid. Someone who knows that you consider his or her feelings valid is going to be a lot easier to get Involved than someone who suspects that you don't.

There are good ways and bad ways to express Empathy Statements, however, and to ensure that the people we teach learn the proper use of the Empathy technique, we suggest in our workshops that they practice these statements at first by fitting them into a standard model. The "standard" Empathy Statement that we suggest has two parts: one part that labels the feeling, and a second part that lets the person know that you understand why he's feeling that way. Here's the form:

I can understand (or I realize, I guess, I see) that you feel because_______.

In the first blank, managers write the specific (Pinpointed) emotion that they feel the person they're dealing with is having: upset, annoyed, confused, sad, and so on. Generally, we have found that this blank can always be filled in with some variation of the four "basic" emotions: anger, fear, sorrow, and joy.

In the second blank we ask managers to think of the specific, pinpointed reason—a situational reason—why it would be all right for the person to have that emotion. Just as the specified emotion lets the speaker know that the listener is not merely nodding without understanding, the specified situational reason lets him know that the listener is making an attempt to relate the speaker's feelings to the circumstances that caused them.
The following example will illustrate.

Ray, a line supervisor in a factory that has been experiencing a rapid increase in work load, learns at a management meeting that his people have just been "awarded" yet another time-consuming order. He looks bewildered: "This is nuts," he says. "We can't even get our current orders out on time, and now you want us to take on another major project!" A fellow supervisor replies: "You must be feeling pretty frustrated, Ray, because we always seem two weeks behind."

Notice the adherence to our "formula" Empathy Statement: a first part identifying the person's feeling, and a second part linking it to the situation. Naturally, as you use Empathy Statements more and more, you can vary this formula—as long as in phrasing it you make it clear to the dissatisfied speaker that you understand both his feelings and the situation. If he sees that, he's going to see you as being on his side—and be more willing to consider himself part of your side. You'll have created an instantly more Involved worker, eager to adopt and "own" your solutions.

But there's a subtle distinction to be observed between the situation and the feelings, and it's one that is often forgotten by people who use Empathy Statements incorrectly. Many people, when you advise them to use "empathy," will object to the technique on the grounds that it's "inappropriate" to the person or situation at hand. "What about when the guy's just plain wrong?" they'll say. "Why should I validate an opinion that's based on an inaccurate reading of the situation?"

To people who make this objection—and there are plenty of them around—we always say, "You're not validating the person's opinion, or his assessment of the situation. You're only saying that, given his feelings about what's going on, you can empathize with him, for the simple reason that you have felt the same way yourself."

That's really the crux of the matter. Empathy Statements are actually the easiest kind of validation to use, and they only get fouled up when, in attempting to be "empathetic," you assume that you have to agree with the speaker as well—that is, that you have to recognize this reaction not only as valid, but as appropriate as well. You can avoid this misuse of Empathy Statements if you remember that their focus is feelings. You have to understand enough about the person's situation to be able to link it to his feelings, but you do not have to agree with his analysis of the situation, and you do not have to acknowledge that his feelings are justified by the situation.

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