How do we learn how to show empathy?

Elaine asked what builds up empathy and how do we develop it? She acknowledged that some people are more empathetic than others; they can recognise verbal and non verbal cues. Tone and facial expressions and other body language reveals empathy or not. A friend of hers is not the person she goes to for empathy, as her answer is always, ‘At least … have a husband, a job!’ Elaine knows she wears her heart on her sleeve but knows that others hug their needs to themselves and hide them, so she has to read the body language and tone to show empathy. When a young man came to her for help at a young person’s conference she had preconceptions of the problem, but she needed just to use all her senses to listen and receive the information. The young man would only reveal his problem if he had a paper bag on his head as it was something he obviously struggled with. She reassured him that God did not hate him but loved him, but asked him to remove the bag as she found it difficult to talk to a paper bag. He took the bag off and she was smiling at the anxious and fearful young man. She told him firstly that God loved him and had made him and he was not to forget that God knew and loved him. Secondly he needed to know how to live in the light of that love, so she told him to ask God how he should live and that she would share that journey with him. She did share his journey through correspondence but did not meet him again till he was 24 when he told her he had changed a lot since then. He had settled down with a partner, who he was going to marry her and could not wait!

In showing empathy Elaine explained that it was important to pay attention not just what was being said, but what was going on in the silences; the apprehensions and doubts could be revealed if sufficient space and an accepting atmosphere were created for apprehensions to be verbalised. Often apparently successful Christians are scared to open up about what is really going on such as domestic violence. The church is a refuge and men whose marriage is breaking up and are terrified that their wife will go; empathetic leadership will draw such problems forth. Acknowledging how others feel even if we disagree:how can a Christian feel like that, as a Christian should turn the other cheek?

Listening skills are vital for understanding the meaning of the messages and keeping track of the points of the conversation. The most effective leaders assure others that they remember what has been said, as they summarise the points of agreement and those of disagreement. A response which shows that they have really listened encourages the communication to continue. Asking questions and paraphrasing what has been said shows that the person has been listened to. Non verbal behaviours such as facial expressions, eye contact and body language reinforce that feeling that the person is really being listened to. We need to respond to the person giving them space especially if they are not a demonstrative person. Like Elaine, I am a huggy and feely person, but I always ask if it would be alright for me to hug a person, and I usually get a positive response.

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