When it comes to building quality relationships with others, few qualities are as important as empathy. The ability to understand another person’s thoughts and feelings, and then to relate to those thoughts and feelings, will help you create greater and stronger connections.
But how can you better connect with a person’s feelings when it matters most?
Emotional intelligence, the ability to identify, understand, and manage emotions, can help. When dealing with a person with whom you’re struggling to understand, you must yourself a single, very important question:
When have I felt similar to what this person has described?
Why this question is a game-changer
In my new book, EQ Applied: The Real-World Guide to Emotional Intelligence, I explain why this question is so valuable.
The problem is, as much as we yearn for others to understand, we often fail to do the same for them. The natural tendency is to focus on our own perspective, to harbor on our own (often completely valid) points and wonder why the other person can’t see things our way. (Of course, the other person then does the exact same thing.)
In contrast, when we ask this question, we strive to relate to the other person’s feelings, first. In turn, this focus on the other person breaks the cycle. Because when someone truly feels understood, the law of reciprocity comes into play: Their natural response will now be to try harder to understand you.
When a person tells you about a personal struggle, listen carefully. Resist the urge to judge the person or situation, to interrupt and share your personal experience, or to propose a solution. Instead, focus on understanding the how and why: how the person feels, and why they feel that way.
To illustrate what this looks like in real life, let me introduce you to Ray.
Ray owns a small business. Vera, Ray’s office manager, has recently told him that she feels overwhelmed. In addition to her normal responsibilities, she’s struggling to cover the tasks of a key employee who is on extended leave. She describes the daily routine as “relentless.”
As Ray listens to Vera, he initially feels disappointed. Before hiring Vera he managed the office himself, so he knows how hard it can be. But he’s also endured more challenging circumstances for a much longer period.
“She has nothing to complain about,” Ray thinks to himself. “Why can’t she just push through?”
In this situation, it’s possible that Ray is suffering from a perspective gap. But it’s not necessarily the case; it could be that Vera simply isn’t capable of living up to Ray’s expectations--at least, not in this current set of circumstances.
But this situation presents Ray with an opportunity to display emotional empathy--to focus on Vera’s feelings instead of on her situation.
Vera says she feels overwhelmed. So, Ray asks himself:
When was a time I felt similar to Vera?
He remembers a time when the business was new, and he was spread pretty thin. Cold calling, bookkeeping, following up on late payments--he used to do it all, in addition to his primary work. All of this drove him to his limits.
By reflecting on this, Ray finds something within himself that allows him to connect with Vera’s feeling of complete inundation. In doing so, he no longer sees her as a complainer. Now, he sees someone who wants to do her job well, but who desperately needs help.
This, in turn, moves Ray to give Vera the help that she needs. He might ask her directly if she has any suggestions that would ease the situation. Maybe he can spread some of the workload to other members of the team. He could even offer that she take a day off to recharge. In addition to benefiting from her employer’s suggestions, Vera is encouraged by his sincere efforts to help, which gives her added motivation and inspires her to give her best.
Emotional empathy is so valuable in everyday life because it allows you to extend beyond shared circumstances. It can help you understand people from various backgrounds and cultures or help you connect with those suffering from a sickness or disability you’ve never experienced.
Of course, you’ll never be able to imagine exactly how another person feels. But trying will get you a lot closer than you would be otherwise.
As others sense your efforts to understand them, they will be moved to do the same for you--resulting in stronger, deeper, and more loyal relationships.
Enjoy this post? Check out my book, EQ Applied, which uses fascinating research and compelling stories to illustrate what emotional intelligence looks like in everyday life.
A version of this article originally appeared on Inc.com.