Last month I started work with a senior manager at a computer software company.  He had taken several courses in "active listening" and "paraphrasing", but still felt he wasn't coming across as being genuine:

"Trying to show empathy just feels phony".

In our coaching sessions, he talked about how he found it hard to find the right words.  Saying something like "I'm sorry you feel this way..." , "Sounds like you're going through a tough time", or "Don't worry things will get better", just sounded flat and fake.

We talked about how some of the things we end up saying fall short of recognizing feelings.  And often they have more to do with us- trying to say the right thing by sounding supportive--than the person who's experiencing the pain or stress.

One way to express how the other person is feeling is to use common metaphors. Instead of struggling for the right words,  the manager made a list of some of his favourite metaphors.  He started listening for common metaphors people like to use because of their visual impact.  And he found metaphors allowed him to express empathy in a way that was more familiar and natural to him.

It wasn't long before he got a chance to use a metaphor at work to respond to a co-worker's frustration:  "Even though your team knows where it's supposed to be going, no one's driving the bus".  

His co-worker smiled and said"  "You've hit the nail on the head".

For more examples of using metaphors to show empathy...


©2011 Martha Dove and Associates