How to Use Motivational Interviewing to Increase Empathy
“Oh my God that’s terrible,” I said as my eyes welled up with tears.
The smile fell from my girlfriend’s face and she immediately began crying as well.
She had just been giving me an irreverent, emotionally sanitized version of how her twin sister had missed acknowledging her son’s birthday. She then followed it up with some unsolicited parenting criticism that hit below the belt.
I didn’t so much see through her smile and light tone as FEEL through it. I didn’t even think, I just got emotional and that was how I knew she was hurting far beyond what her light tone was conveying.
For a long time, feeling my way through a conversation was business-as-usual and was key in making me an effective counselor. But during the four-year process of the dissolution of my marriage, my own pain had shut down my empathy superpowers. I left my counseling job because I didn’t have the emotional bandwidth to be there for my clients. I couldn’t feel my way through our conversations and I stopped looking forward to them.
This connection with my friend was the first real emergence of my empathy since my marriage fell apart.
As I drove home, I had a little smile on my face and thought to myself, “Huh, it’s not dead. It was just hibernating. I’m BACK!”
I was not back.
As I engaged with people in the following days, I returned to just hearing words and not sharing in the other person’s emotions. I was determined to reopen that door. I decided to bring some intention to the process and set my sites on work, as for me, those relationships were not as deep or complex as my personal relationships (this is not the case for everyone).
There are many benefits to bringing empathy to the workplace but a few of my favorites are:
Illogical behavior and decisions start to make sense when you factor in emotional states and motivation
Understanding others helps you craft your own message in a way that can resonate with them
You can’t have empathy without listening and it’s the listeners that get all the information and thus the “big picture”
Empathy creates psychological safety and that’s where innovation lives
When I tried to tap into that side of myself in the following weeks, there was an occasional flicker, but the emotional ride was still out of reach.
Often the simplest way to create psychological or emotional change is to first change your behavior. I decided to put the training wheels back on and start over with my basic counseling skills. I started using Motivational Interviewing to cue deep, active listening and emotional reflection to build empathy.
What are Motivational Interviewing and Empathy?
Yeah, I just threw a lot of jargon at you. We could talk about either concept for days. For now, let me oversimplify:
Motivational Interviewing - reflecting what the other person is saying in a statement, sometimes adding an assumption or nudge for them to respond to. For example, someone says with discouragement, “Out of the 20 times I tried, it only worked twice.” And you say, “You’re feeling frustrated, but you have some successes under your belt to learn from.” You assume frustration and nudge them towards reframing the issue and seeing the successes.
Empathy - recognizing, without judgment, emotions in another person and feeling those emotions with them. All people are capable of empathy. It’s built in. (We could discuss sociopathy here but you get the drift.)
My goal was to use Motivational Interviewing statements to try and open the door to my own emotions so I could feel right along with the person I was talking to. When you reflect not just what you heard factually, but what you think the other person is feeling, it can create connection and light the empathy fires.
Reflecting facts moves us towards understanding
Reflecting emotion moves us towards empathy
We all know that listening usually consists of thinking about what we’re going to say next, rather than really diving deep into what the speaker is saying. The great thing about Motivational Interviewing is that it leverages this tendency to think about what you’re going to say next, but directs it at reflecting what the speaker has said.
Here’s the trick - you can think about what you are going to say next but you have to start your statement with, “So, what I hear you saying is…”
This simple tweak means that in order to finish that sentence, you MUST pay attention to what the other person is saying. Of course, if you’re being passive aggressive or pushing an agenda, this won’t work. It only works if your goal is to really connect and you leave them space to disagree or elaborate on what you concluded. “So what I hear you saying is that you’re an idiot,” gets no one anywhere.
Whatever you do, don’t say anything that starts with “At least…” The second you try and put a silver lining on a situation, you minimize the very real difficult emotions being experienced and drive a wedge between you and that person.
Work was a great place to start practicing this again. I was still shell-shocked from my divorce and doing a lot of emotional self-protection, so I wasn’t ready for anything too heavy. People at work don’t usually start with the sharing of deepest wounds. People start with sharing frustration, insecurity and not being seen or respected.
It wasn’t long before I was back in the groove and rebuilding my skills. Even when I couldn’t go there emotionally with someone, the recognition and unconditional acceptance of their emotions started to strengthen my relationships and open doors for me.
Over time, as I recovered from my divorce and increased my emotional bandwidth, feeling with people started to return on its own.
The downside to empathy: strengthen boundaries or carry the weight of the world
What makes true empathy such a challenge is that it requires you to feel negative emotions. How many of us go around trying to feel bad. I mean we do have an industry of horror movies and the news is filled with all things scary and horrible. But those are at a distance. They are not in the person right in front of you.
Reaping the rewards of empathy without your emotional centers going supernova requires BOUNDARIES! A way to go into those feelings but not stay there.
Just like everything else, boundaries are a skill that need to be practiced and that will naturally evolve with experience. Understand that if you’re feeling your stress AND someone else’s, you’ll need more recovery and self-care time.
The closer someone is to you, the harder this is to do. I mean when your basketball-obsessed kid doesn’t make the team, how long is it before you get a good night’s sleep again?
It is particularly sticky for those we feel responsible for. Kids are certainly an example, but if you’re a manager, you may feel a version of this when members of your team are struggling with difficult emotions. Or even more difficult, when it’s their relationship with you that makes them feel unseen or disrespected. Now your ego is involved and feelings of defensiveness arise. Listening without judgement requires some Yoda-level self-management.
In this case, say the words, “So, what I hear you saying is…” and then say, “I’m so glad you shared this with me. I need some time to think about this,” and get the heck outta there so you can access your support system and tap into your internal Yoda.
For everyday empathy, there are two things that help me let go of other people’s emotions.
First, trust that they are strong enough to handle their emotions and their life situation. Explicitly state it. People, especially those we hold influence over, respond to our expectations of them. If we try and fix everything for them, we communicate that we’re not confident that they can solve the problem for themselves. If you are indeed worried that they can’t manage their own situation, you can empower them to access other resources. Open doors as to where they can get help if they want it - who else they can talk to, granting permission for more self-care or encouraging them to access company resources are all options that still leave the ball in their court.
Second, having a letting go ritual or mantra can queue your parasympathetic nervous system (that’s the calming one) to step away from the intense emotions. Consciously creating an intention of letting go is half the battle. This can be a cleansing deep breath or stepping away to the restroom to wash your hands in warm water with the really good smelling soap.
Happy endings for any story require hard work
It took some time and practice, but I’m finally at the point where I can call empathy one of my superpowers again.
It’s been about a decade since my divorce and you can see in my career how the reemergence of my empathy has pushed me from inbound digital marketing into coaching and professional development.
Now, even on the low days when I’m not feeling it, I can just start with the simple statement and open the doors of connection.