When you ask yourself what other people are thinking and feeling, you gain insight into how best to interact with them. This insight helps you defuse conflict and guide the conversation.
There is a nonverbal element to responding to empathy as well. If you realize a friend is sad but ask them "What's wrong?" in a very cheerful way, your friend might think you don't really care. But when you change your tone to sound sympathetic and concerned, your friend is more likely to believe you want to hear what's wrong. As you might remember, your words and your nonverbal signals work together to communicate, and you want them to be in harmony.
Now, I realize I've given you a lot to work on already. Empathy will eventually become second nature for you, but it can be a lot of work to train yourself to be aware of what the other person is thinking and feeling. When you add the need to manage your own nonverbal signals, empathy can seem overwhelming.
But don't worry. Nonverbal empathy is actually very simple. Similar to the way that body language boils down to just two signals, there are only two nonverbal empathy options you need to worry about: whether to be high-energy or low-energy.
What do I mean by high-energy and low-energy?
High And Low Energy Defined
When someone is high energy, they tend to act
In contrast, when someone is low energy, they tend to act
Note that high-energy doesn't always mean happy, and low-energy doesn't always mean sad. Someone who has just won the lottery might jump up and run around the room celebrating, or they might lean back in their chair with a slow, satisfied smile spreading across their face. Both are happy responses, but one is high-energy and one is low-energy.
Also note that people will feel high-energy sometimes and low-energy other times. When you see your friend in a moment of excitement, you should conclude "My friend is feeling high-energy right now." rather than decide "My friend is always high-energy."
Energy And Empathy
The idea of high-energy and low-energy is simple enough. But how does it apply to empathy?
Well, if your partner is high-energy, try to be high-energy.
And if your partner is low-energy, try to be low-energy.
Here's what I mean by that.
Let's say you meet a friend for dinner. Your friend has had a busy day and you notice they are less boisterous than usual. They are clearly feeling low-energy.
You, on the other hand, are very excited about the restaurant. So you gush about the food and the ambiance, you flirt with the wait staff, and in general act expressive and excited. Your friend, meanwhile, picks at her food and wishes you would settle down so she could have a quiet conversation with you.
In other words, you are being high-energy, and your friend is being low-energy. Your friend wants a restful evening, while you want to party and be goofy. Because there's a mismatch, it makes it harder for you to connect with your friend.
Nonverbal Energy Matching
But if you match your energy level to your friend's energy level, the evening will go much better. When you notice your friend is low-energy, you can act more reserved and sedate, even if you are feeling excited. Or, if you notice your friend is high-energy, you can respond by acting more expressive and boisterous.
Note that you should match your partner's energy level, not exceed it. If your partner is relaxed and sedate, you should be low-energy, but there's no need to act like Eeyore. If your partner is boisterous and loud, you should be high-energy, but there's no need to go crazy.
Energy matching applies to social situations too, not just individuals. For instance, a formal event is likely to be low-energy, (so it's wise to be somber and reserved, even if you feel excited), whereas a party is likely to be high-energy (so it's wise to be more expressive and boisterous, even if you feel relaxed.) When entering a social situation for the first time, take a moment to figure out the energy level of the situation, and then use it to guide your own energy level.
Of course, your own energy level matters too. If you're feeling high-energy or low-energy, it's ok to express that, even if your partner is feeling something different. But it's wise to start by matching your energy level to your partner, and then move back to your natural energy level. This allows your partner to move energy levels with you.
When you monitor the energy levels of those around you and adjust your own energy level accordingly, you'll find connecting with others to be much easier. Plus, you're also practicing being aware of what others are thinking and feeling, which will feed back into your study of empathy in general.
As you begin to master empathy, you'll find yourself understanding others better, having fewer conflicts, and building better relationships. That's a reward well worth the effort.
Your Empathy Progress - Complete!
Your Next Lesson On Supporting Your Friends Awaits!
There are a lot of links in the supporting your friend section so I have not made a pretty menu yet 🙂
Instead, please click this link to go to the table of contents for that lesson, and use the link at the bottom of each page to navigate to the next lesson (or just go back to the table of contents).
Oh, and if you've been enjoying this content, please check out my books and courses! You'll find more resources there that can help your social skills improve even further.
Thanks! - Dan