How to Practice Empathy Most Effectively

Empathy is one of the most vital skills we can develop. Empathy is sorely needed in these times, and has been a cornerstone for all times. In its essence, empathy is the ability to place oneself inside of someone else’s experience. There are many ways to practice empathy, but the most effective way I’ve found is to feel into the other by imagining that I am actually in the other person’s body. This process gives me the feeling of empathy as well as the sense of being in their shoes, thinking the way they do about a particular situation. 

Perceptual Positions

The Perceptual Positions Practice comes out of Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP), and is a clear and valuable guide to cultivate the empathy skills outlined above. As a Process Coach for 18 years, my cohort and I used this tool as a foundation for developing empathy and rapport amongst ourselves and with clients. 

There are four basic perceptual positions. They each line up with the first four parts of speech: 

  1. First position is the “I” or self position. In first position, you are looking out through your body and experiencing life as you typically experience it. To get a good sense of first position, feel into your body and your self, and narrow your awareness to experience the world through only your bodily senses.
  2. Second position is the “you” position. In second position, you are empathetically feeling into another person’s experience. In second position I imagine what it’s like to be you and feel and experience what you are experiencing. I extend my awareness to you and allow my sensations to feel what you are feeling. 
  3. Third position, “he/she/they,” is the observer position. In third position we are the observer. We are like a fly on the wall watching the whole interaction. In observer position, we are in a neutral third person position. I am not in my own body or your body. I am a fly on the wall watching the dynamic.
  4. Fourth position is the “we” position or field position. In field position, we are feeling the whole dynamic and are no longer neutral as we are in third position. We are looking out for the interests of everyone involved. I, as an individual, am identified with the whole field and in service to everyone in the dynamic. I care about what everyone is feeling and am attuned to it. 

The Fourth Position: Field Position

The most powerful place to anchor yourself is in field position. From field position you have access to all of the positions while being connected with the feelings in your heart. In a sense, the heart is an organ of the field: it senses, measures and responds to the whole body. Flexibility is essential in field position. There are no drawbacks to field position since it is a hybrid position and incorporates the benefits of all the other positions.

The Gifts and Drawbacks of Each Position

Self position is a great place to experience pleasure and joy. When we are in self position, we can drop into our experience more fully and immerse ourselves more deeply. Too much self position can lead one to becoming self-absorbed and unable to recognize the other. 

Going into second position is a wonderful way to experience empathy and compassion. We can sense and feel others as a way to become open to them in very profound ways. 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 must retain the ability to shift into any of the other positions at any moment. Rather than staying squarely in the ever changing kaleidoscope of experience which is field position, we can flexibly move wherever we are called to move. With our awareness and focus, we can consciously feel into specific facets of our lives, whether inside of us or in the world 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 and imagine the situation. From First Position, feel your body. Then take your awareness to the midpoint between your body and the other. You are watching the scene like a movie. Watch both people and notice the interaction. (Take a minute to replay the situation in as much detail as possible.)
  2. Return to your own body. When you look out, see the other person through your own eyes. Now replay the situation and notice everything you experienced 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 midpoint between the two of you (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 you are going to place your awareness inside the other (Second Position). Do this first by getting right behind the other person and up close to them. Let your senses extend into the other person’s body so that you can feel and imagine in your own body what they are experiencing. When you look out, you see yourself through their eyes. As the other person, notice what you are feeling, hearing, 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 and you’ve lived inside the other person’s experience. Now move into feeling the whole dynamic. This is the feeling observer position which we call Field Position. Replay the situation by feeling 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 that you’ve experienced all four positions distinctly. After you’ve done it a couple of times, it’s easy to do on your own. Once you’re comfortable and adept at moving through this practice, the next step is learning how to move between the positions in real time as you are communicating. I make a practice of feeling 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

This practice has been the backbone of Bridging Worlds. I’ve used it innumerable times with autistic and developmentally disabled clients and been able to bridge to them and communicate with them more powerfully. Recently I used it with a client with Prader Willi Syndrome to help him adjust to new rules around his diet. By using this practice, we were able to help him move through a really difficult conversation with grace and ease. 

I also use this practice while coaching neurotypical adults. It allows me to support others even when they are having experiences that I haven’t personally experienced. As I was working with a client who is coming out of some narcissistic patterns of behavior, I was able to feel with him what it was like to come out of a defense pattern he had been using since childhood. Everything was so brand new to him that it was like he was learning to walk all over again. Even though I had never had this experience, I could feel it with him through using the perceptual positions practice. 

The practice of moving through the perceptual positions daily 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 1-3 times everyday, it becomes second nature to you to feel the other and 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. Remember that 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 in even 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. The awareness 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.

Join the Revolution

To join Heart-Centered Revolutions and make a world that works for everyone, sign up for our mailing list. This act places you firmly at the center of our communication channels. By far, the best way to join this revolution, though, is to practice opening your heart and truly coming from unconditional love for yourself and everyone else around you. For more on how to bring heart-centered principles into your everyday life, we have a collection of books covering an assortment of topics. You can also continue your exploration of heart-centered principles by reading the articles on our blog. We offer business consulting and personal and parenting coaching.  We also offer workshops.  Register for them here.

Tell us what you thought about this article.  Like us on Facebook and share your thoughts. 

If these words and ideas truly resonate with you and make your heart and soul sing, visit us online and join the revolution!

Heart-Centered Revolutions is a 501c3 non-profit organization dedicated to forging a world that works for everyone. We can’t do it alone – we need you!

Facebook | YouTube | Instagram | LinkedIn