How to Practice Empathy Most Effectively

Empathy is one of the most vital skills for our times and all times. Empathy is the ability to put ourselves inside of another’s experience. There are many ways to practice empathy. The most effective way I’ve found is to feel into the other by imagining you are actually in the other person’s body. This process gives you both the feeling of empathy, as well as the empathic perspective of being in the other’s shoes and thinking like they might think about a situation. 

Perceptual Positions

The Perceptual Positions Practice comes out of Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP), and is the most effective way I’ve experienced to cultivate our empathy skills. In the Process Coaching work I was a part of for 18 years, we used this tool as a foundation for developing empathy and rapport. 

There are four basic perceptual positions, which line up with the first four parts of speech: 

  1. First position is the “I” or self position. In the first position, you are looking out through your body and experiencing life largely as you typically experience it. 
  2. The second position is the “you” or other position. In the second position, we are empathetically feeling the other person’s experience. 
  3. Third position, “he/she/they,” is the observer position. In the third position we are the observer. We are like a fly on the wall watching the whole interaction. In this observer position, we are not in our own body, but we can see our own body, as well as all the others in the dynamic, from a neutral third person position. 
  4. Fourth position is the “we” position or field position. In this field position, we are feeling the whole dynamic and no longer neutral as we are in the third position. We are looking out for the interests of everyone involved. 

The Gifts and Drawbacks of Each Position

The most powerful place to anchor yourself is in field position. From field position you have access to all other positions, and you are connected with feelings from your heart. The heart is an organ of the field. It senses the whole. Flexibility is essential here. There are no drawbacks to field position since it is a flexible hybrid position which incorporates the benefits of all the other positions.

Self position is a great place from which to experience pleasure and joy. When we are in self position, we can recognize our experience more fully and fully have our experience. However, too much self position makes us self-absorbed and not able to recognize the other. 

Going into the other position is wonderful for empathy and compassion. We can sense and feel others and be open to them in very profound ways. However, too much other position can lead to enmeshment and a disconnection from self. 

Observer position is great for seeing things clearly and getting a sense of the dynamics at play. Too much observer position makes you removed from the situation and feels aloof to others. 

Field position is the most wonder-filled position of them all. To truly be in field position, we have to have the ability to shift to all the other positions as needed at any moment. So rather than staying in field position, which is an ever changing kaleidoscope of experience, we can flexibly move wherever we are called to move and feel more penetratingly into every facet of life in and around us. 

The Perceptual Positions Practice

Take a few moments to recall a recent situation you’ve experienced that matches the following criteria:  an in-person, small to moderate disagreement or miscommunication. 

(Position names are capitalized here for ease of use.)

  1. Close your eyes, imagine the situation and go into the Observer Position. Replay the situation as if you are watching a movie from a little bit above and to one side. Watch both people and notice the interaction. (Take a minute to replay the situation in as much detail as possible.)
  2. Go into Self Position. When you look out, you see the other person through your own eyes. Now replay the situation and notice your experience at that time. What were you feeling, hearing, and seeing? (Take a minute in this position to re-experience it just the way you experienced it at the time.)
  3. Go back to the Observer Position just for a moment so you can see both of you. As soon as you can see both of you, you are ready for the next step.
  4. Now move into Other Position by getting right behind the other person and up close to them. Move into the other person’s body and experience what they are experiencing. When you look out, you see yourself through their eyes. As the other person, notice what you are hearing, feeling, and seeing. Experience the situation from their perspective as fully as possible. (Take a minute to get every detail of this experience.)
  5. Now return to the Observer Position. From the Observer Position, feel into the whole. You’ve been inside your own position, you’ve been inside the other position, and you’ve observed it all. You are now in a feeling observer position which we call Field Position. Replay the situation from this feeling observer and feel into the whole interaction and notice what you experience from here. Take a couple of minutes to glean everything you can from this experience.
  6. Jot down some notes or share your experience with someone who has experienced this process. 

The first time you do this, it’s good to talk to someone who can help ensure you’ve experienced all the positions well. Once you do it a couple of times, it’s easy to do on your own. Once you get good at doing this practice after the fact, the next step is learning how to feel into the other in real time as you are communicating. I feel into the other every time I start speaking, when I’m listening, and periodically as I’m speaking to gauge how effectively I’m communicating. I also feel for how well they are feeling into me or what position they are in primarily. I try to use my communication to help bring them into a deeper field position where they can access both empathy for me and can feel into the whole field more effectively. 

The Immense Power of this Practice

Through practicing perceptual positions daily, this practice alone has given me deep and immense insight into what another is feeling at any given moment. By using it in every interaction I have, I continue to deepen and hone my ability to feel others. When you practice this exercise everyday (one to three times per day) it becomes second nature to you, such that as a matter of course you feel the other and feel the field in everything that you do. 

The Gift of Flexibility

When we are flexible with our perceptual positions, we are able to move easily to other positions. Similarly, when we are flexible in perspectives, we don’t get stuck in one point of view. Anchoring in field position allows us to move into other positions and self position at will. Field position gives us maximum flexibility. And remember there is no wrong perceptual position to be in. They are all equally valid ways of experiencing reality. It’s a great practice to do when you are bored or annoyed by an interaction. When you start using perceptual positions, there’s always something interesting to discover even in the most mundane situation. 

It is my sincere hope that this article gives you a sense of how to actually deepen your ability with empathy. This awareness of and practice of perceptual positions has been one of the single most transformative practices I’ve ever done. From the time I learned it, this practice has informed everything I do. I even named my first company Bridging Worlds Behavioral Services, because I believe that when we put ourselves in the shoes of the other, we can truly bridge worlds.

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