In this interview with Tracy Seed, an Empathy Consultant and Certified Trainer with the International Centre for Nonviolent Communication, you will not only understand what is empathy, but also what you need to know to be more empathetic yourself.
I highly recommend you read her inspiring answers to my questions, as they can educate you, and/or allow you to unlearn what you think you knew about empathy.
Here is what Tracy wrote:
1. What does being empathetic mean and bring to you?
I believe that empathy is the gateway to taking compassionate action; it is essential for restoring wellbeing in society.
Being empathic means that I want to understand you, I care about what is important to you as well as what is important to me. My focus is on how you and I feel about what we are doing or what is happening in our lives.
Empathy brings me self-acceptance and acceptance of others, beyond judging their actions as right or wrong. This doesn’t mean I agree with what someone does or says, it means that I accept that we humans make mistakes, cause harm, and feel pain as well as making life wonderful for each other.
2. What could cause a lack of empathy?
The development of empathy can be impacted by stressful experiences, trauma, and some psychological conditions.
Polarised views, beliefs and seeing each other as different can make it difficult to empathise.
We need to feel safe to connect empathically. Fear and anger releases biological chemicals that activates the stress response - to fight or flight - and this shuts off heartfelt social connection.
Not belonging to a group can get in the way of someone feeling empathy because we need each other to survive and thrive.
Empathy can also be difficult to access if you have fixed views about good and bad, and that good people need to be rewarded and bad people need to be punished, and some people deserve to be heard and others don’t.
I remember when I was 11 years old, my father died. I had all sorts of problems settling into secondary school and didn’t want to go - I truanted. I was punished for this and finally expelled from the school. I wonder how different life at this time could have been for me if the head mistress had been empathic.
“Where did we ever get the crazy idea that in order to make children do better, first we have to make them feel worse? Think of the last time you felt humiliated or treated unfairly. Did you feel like cooperating or doing better?” ― Jane Nelsen
3. What do people need to know before trying to be more empathetic?
We need empathy before we can give empathy. If a child’s or young adults needs have been inconsistently met, empathy can be affected.
Human beings are born with an innate capacity to connect with others – we need each other to survive and thrive.
Empathy usually develops during our early years.
“From early infancy, it appears that our ability to regulate emotional states, depends upon the experience of feeling that a significant person in our life is simultaneously experiencing a similar state of mind” – Daniel J. Siegel
The key relationships we have through the first 3 years of life are instrumental in laying the foundations for empathy. It is 18 – 24 months that young children can recognise (in the mirror) they are separate from others. They notice they look different and have their own thoughts and feelings. They may respond to someone’s upset by opening their arms to give a hug or fetching a cuddly toy for comfort or stand back. They instinctively mimic what has been done to them. This is empathy.
Understanding, another’s view of the world and being attuned to what another is feeling, and needing is more complex, this shows up around 4 or 5 years and continues to develop though life.
To be alongside another, when they have a completely different view of the world and hear someone you love expressing pain without being preoccupied with your own views and wanting to fix the situation is what empathy requires.
Empathy is cognitive, which means understanding the perspective of another. Most importantly, it is emotional sensing the emotions being expressed by another, it’s about feeling with another. It’s compassionate, which involves taking action to support others.
“Empathy is a respectful understanding of what others are experiencing. Instead of offering empathy, we often have a strong urge to give advice or reassurance and to explain our own position or feeling. Empathy, however, calls upon us to empty our mind and listen to others with our whole being” – Dr Marshall Rosenberg
People need to feel safe within themselves to give and receive empathy.
Empathy means that all human needs matter.
4. What first steps can people take to start being more empathetic?
Be well resourced with your own empathy tank full.
Receive empathy education (understand what empathy is and what it isn’t).
Practice listening to others to understand them not to give advice, tell to teach them or sharing your own story.
5. What habits can people do to maintain empathy?
Remember that empathy is a choice
Be empathic to yourself
Breathe, be present, be curious about what others are feeling and needing.
Listen to understand versus listening to respond
Recap what you hear is important to the person.
6. What tools would you recommend for people who want to learn more about empathy?
Here are a few references, there are so many more:
Complete an NVC Foundation Course, see www.nvc-uk.com and www.cnvc.org
Many teachings on Youtube:
What empathy is and what it isn’t – Dr Marshall Rosenberg
Nonviolent Communication A Language for Life – Dr Marshall Rosenberg
What is empathy? – Brené Brown
Empathy - Best speech of all time – Simon Sinek
TED Empathic Civilisation – Jeremy Rifkin
The Empathy Factor – Marie Miyashiro
Blog entries – Tracy Seed
Tracy Seed is an Empathy Consultant, a Certified Trainer with the International Centre for Nonviolent Communication. She is passionate about working with individuals and organisations who value authenticity and collaboration. She leads a private coaching practice, offers NVC public trainings and wellbeing retreats.
You can connect with Tracy through her website tracyseed.com and social media pages:
Instagram — @tracyseedcoaching
Facebook — @TracySeedCoach
Twitter — @tracyseed
LinkedIn — @tracyseed
About the interviewer
My name is Jeff Monnery, a videographer and documentarian whose mission is to ensure people are given the choice to make positive changes toward self-empowerment. I am the founder of Spoken Out Stories, a video series about stories of people who lived a hard experience in their life, and found their way to move forward with courage, determination, and optimism.
You can connect with me through my social media pages:
Instagram — @jeffmonnery
Twitter — @jeffmonnery
Facebook — @JeffMonnery
LinkedIn — @jeffmonnery
About An Unlearning Initiative
An Unlearning Initiative is an interview series of people sharing the experience and expertise on various topics around mental health, self-empowerment, empathy, and love.
It is about giving others diverse perspectives from around the World to help unlearn misconceptions and enlighten people toward a better understanding of what is around them.
You can connect with An Unlearning Initiative through these social media pages:
Instagram — @anunlearninginitiative
Twitter — @AnUnlearning
Facebook — @anunlearninginitiative