Ah, empathy. At its most basic level, “empathy” simply means “understanding where another person is coming from.” I worked in the counseling field for a couple years, so I have been pretty well-trained in how to have empathy for others, and even how to make them feel understood even when you can’t fully grasp what’s going on for them.
That’s the good news: you don’t actually have to understand what someone’s experiencing in order to empathize with her. Men will appreciate this, as women so often talk about issues that we simply cannot grasp, to which we simply want to offer easy suggestions.
Let’s begin with a basic distinction, “fixing vs. understanding.” If you have female friends — which I surely hope you do — you will be familiar with a common complaint women have about their men:
“I don’t want him to fix it, I want him to understand.”
This complaint stems from what happens when you interact with a male, and he does what his brain is designed to do: identify the problem, and find a solution. Such precise, gear-like brain-parts are how we’ve managed to do things like conquer the known world, map the stars, and build civilizations since time immemorial. It’s an innately masculine trait that allows society to function and thrive.
Where it becomes an issue, of course, is when the person expressing a problem doesn’t actually want a solution, as is often the case when women come to us with what seem like problems.
For example, maybe she talks to you about someone she doesn’t like at work. Your first instinct, as a man, is to tell her what you would do in the situation, whether it’s sitting them down to talk it out, or just flat-out ignoring them. We cannot understand why the female not only doesn’t appreciate our advice, but seems to get upset at our suggestions. It’s because, again, she wants understanding, not a solution.
While providing solutions is absolutely a great idea sometimes, other times, we are expected to simply understand and empathize with the situation, keeping our great advice to ourselves and pretending to understand why she won’t just take our advice and fix the problem.
So let’s go over some ways to display empathy.
#1: Identify Her State
The first step to successful empathy is to identify the other person’s state. Is she upset? Happy? Confused? Anxious? Depressed?
The ability to do this allows you to start off a conversation with
a little cold read, showing that you
understand how she’s feeling. For example:
- “You seem sad; what’s up?”
- “Wow, you’re really excited right now! What’s the good news?
- “You seem confused — what’s going on?”
That first step, of simply naming the state she’s in, will make her feel like you have magical feeling-powers and help her feel understood. It shows that you’re paying attention to her, noticing little changes throughout her mood fluctuations, and are investing time and energy into understanding her as a person.
If you want to get really technical with small chunks here, you can also learn to identify the various components of each state:
- How quickly is she speaking?
- What is her vocal tonality like?
- How is she positioning her body?
- What kinds of words is she using?
This will allow you to…
#2: Mirror Her
Intentionally building a deep level of rapport is another way of showing empathy, as you are essentially “mirroring” the state she’s in. So for example, if a woman is anxious and speaking very quickly, in a higher tonality, you can adopt the same speech pattern at the beginning of your conversation.
This is also called “matching,” as in “do what she’s doing.” If you match her speech rate, vocal tone, or breathing rate, you can talk about pretty much anything while building a maintaining a sense of deep rapport. If you combine this with the “You seem” statements from the first part of this article, you can build a sense of understanding very quickly.
Once you’ve matched and mirrored her state, by adopting her gestures and physiology, you can then begin to change your own to move her towards the desired state. So for example, let’s say she’s anxious at the beginning of a conversation, again speaking quickly and with a high tone. Her gestures are fast and jerky.
After saying something like “You seem anxious, what’s going on?” and matching the aforementioned physiological markers, you would begin to slowly act more relaxed throughout the conversation. You slow your gestures down, adopt a more “relaxed” body language, and lower your voice tone.
If you do this correctly, and you matched her well, you are now “leading” her emotions and you can see her state follow yours right in front of your eyes. It is wild to see this work in real life, and you will feel like a Jedi. While having mostly-irrelevant conversation, you showed deep empathy and actually moved her towards a better place.
In NLP, this concept is known as “pacing and leading.” In laymen’s’ terms, you could translate it as “meet her where she’s at, then invite her somewhere else.”
Powerful stuff, guys
Instead of controlling your and her emotional states like that though, maybe you do actually want to “feel what she is feeling.” This can be useful sometimes as well, and will truly help you understand where another person is coming from. If that’s the case, you can always…
#3: Go Into Second Position
In therapeutic terms, “second position” is somewhat similar to the NLP concept of “matching and mirroring.” It basically means that you become as much like the other person as possible. This can be a little scary when the other person is in a truly unhappy or dangerous state, like depression or severe anxiety, because you begin to take on traits of those states as you do it. Which is why, again, it’s important to only do it for a short time and then move towards something better.
Second position involves not only matching and mirroring of nonverbals like body language and paraverbals like speech rate, but to actually think the other person’s thoughts.
For example, if someone says “It made me feel really terrible when he said that to me,” to go into full second position, you would actually close your eyes, take on her body language, and hear the other person saying something terrible to you. Upon taking note of how it makes you feel, you would then have developed a deep empathy for where the person is at, because you understand exactly how she’s feeling.
Of course, maybe you don’t actually want to hear people saying mean things to you, or start feeling terrible just to understand how another person is feeling. I fully support and understand that sometimes, that’s just a bad idea (which is why therapists are so well trained in how and when to do this).
In that case, it can be really helpful to maintain your own boundaries, controlling your own state completely, while using language to make the other person feel heard and understood, without your genuinely understanding. This is the easiest, safest, and most useful bet. This is what therapists are doing when they’re on “autopilot,” nodding along and allowing you to vent, nudging you to keep talking, without actually being invested in the content of what you’re saying. Their go-to technique is called…
#4: Reflective Listening
This is one component of “active listening,” in which you pay close attention to what the other person is saying in order to engage in conversation and listen for certain words and ideas. Once you’ve gathered information about what the other person is expressing (which is not necessarily the content of their language), it can be helpful to reflect it back to her, either verbatim or by paraphrase.
This allows the other person to believe you were listening and are empathizing with her, which makes her feel comfortable and builds an immense amount of trust and rapport.
Let’s take our earlier example, in which a woman comes home and tells you about something upsetting that happened at work. Use your active listening and state identification skills to surmise how she’s feeling, or what state she’s in.
As she vents out the irrelevant content of the story, nod along and maybe ask a few small questions. Whatever you do, refrain from providing advice, which she will perceive as disrespectful and “not listening.”
When it seems like she’s winding down (or if you want to cut her off in a respectful way), just reflect back major components of her story. For example, something like,
“It sounds like your boss made you really upset when he said that.”
Instead of providing advice, you’re showing that you were paying attention, understand her state, and she will feel as if you “get what she’s saying.” I know, as a guy, that it seems dumb and makes no sense to us. We generally communicate with each other to pass on useful information. It has a purpose.
Women tend to communicate simply to communicate, and we know they love to talk about things that, as men, we see as completely devoid of meaningful content. So it can be important to recognize that she’s not communicating to pass on information when she’s doing this, she is just venting and doesn’t care for suggestions—she just wants to feel like you “understand,” which is important for women. They don’t want your opinion on the content of her communication; they want understanding of and respect for the meaning of the communication, which is that someone at work made her upset. The story and all its little details about who said what make absolutely no difference, so it’s best just to nod along during that part and wait for your chance to reflect back her state, either verbatim or by paraphrasing.
It can also help to add a little question at the end of the reflection, such as “It sounds like your boss made you really upset when he said that. Is that about right?”
I know it sounds dumb to most guys, but I promise, when people are anxious about something, this really helps them feel like you “get it” and are more than happy to either validate your reflection or correct you. If they say “No no, that’s not really what I meant,” let them keep talking for a bit. Then try again. “Oh, so you felt X way when Y said Z. I get it, that sucks!” is usually all you need to do until they run out of steam.
So there you go: some tips and tools to help you empathize with any particular woman you may be dealing with at the time. On a macro scale, this entire website is about empathizing with what women truly desire — which we learned by listening carefully, paying attention, and adjusting our behavior to have the best effect.
On a micro level, it’s really no different.
I know I got into a lot of technical jargon in this article, and some of this may be overwhelming because it’s so much new information.
I understand how you feel.