Why Practicing Empathy Makes You a Better Lawyer
Empathy is a word that perhaps many of us have heard, but which can be difficult to parse out in regards to what exactly it means or looks like. Many tend to conflate the terms sympathy and empathy, which despite sounding so similar, are not the same thing. Alternatively, it is equally true that while most of us likely have positive associations with the concept of empathy, we may have been taught, over the course of our childhood or in our career, to prioritize being reasonable, logical, and offering practical, accurate advice and taking action over offering empathy. This can be especially true for those working in the legal profession. However, we have found that there to be ample reasons why you should focus energy and effort on practicing empathy, and that it will ultimately benefit both you as the empathizer and the individual you’re empathizing with.
First, let’s define the word. According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of empathy consists of “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.”
But why is empathy such a vital life skill? Well, not only does demonstrating empathy for the individual you are interacting comfort them by making them feel seen, heard, and understood, it makes us better, kinder, more “emotionally intelligent” human beings too.
Moreover, if these factors weren’t reason enough to practice empathy, empathy also helps us better help others. It makes us better at our jobs, especially if our jobs involve interacting with and attempting to understand other people on a regular and sometimes fairly personal basis, as is the case in the life of a lawyer.
“Empathy assists us in being able to relate to our clients, to better understand them and their circumstances, who they are and why they took the actions they did. It ensures that they are not only being provided with the legal guidance they need, but also with the emotional support they require. It helps them to trust us, confide in us, and makes it easier for us to work together as a team to achieve the best possible outcome possible.”
Empathy assists us in being able to relate to our clients, to better understand them and their circumstances, who they are and why they took the actions they did. It ensures that they are not only being provided with the legal guidance they need, but also with the emotional support they require. It helps them to trust us, confide in us, and makes it easier for us to work together as a team to achieve the best possible outcome possible. And, finally, it will help them to be more optimistic about the prospects of their case, and more prepared to cope with the implications of their circumstances.
So, how do we practice empathy, both in our work lives and our personal lives? It’s one of those things that’s much easier said than done. A good first step is to listen. Really and truly listen, carefully and patiently. It sounds so simple, but for many of us, it can be easy to become distracted while listening to someone explain their problem or predicament, as is the impulse to interrupt or interject when we think we’ve understood the gist of their situation, or if we’ve been suddenly struck with inspiration and think we have an idea or piece of advice that will help them.
The key here is to really put your full focus on the speaker, the person who is telling you how they feel or confiding in you some sort of personal challenge, conflict, or traumatic event they are currently facing or have faced, not yourself. Try not to think about what you’re going to say next or how you’ll respond, you can worry about that later. Besides, despite what our instincts and impulses may suggest, sometimes people really don’t want (or need) advice on how to feel, what to do, what to say, or how to proceed forward. Sometimes they just need to be heard, to have someone who will give them the time and attention to vocalize their thoughts, emotions, concerns. Just listening shows that you care.
Aside from just staying silent, another way to show you’re listening is reflecting what someone has said back to them. It might sound odd or unproductive if you’ve never tried it before, but summarizing or reframing what someone has just said, or asking questions to confirm you understand what their feeling, expressing, and communicating is great way to show you’ve been paying attention and trying to your best to comprehend what they’re going through. Even something as simple as saying “It sounds like this is a really challenging time for you” or “It sound like what happened today really upset you” can feel strange or obvious at first, but ultimately go a long way to make someone feel validated and valued. More specific statements and questions can also give them an opportunity to correct or elaborate where need be to make sure you’re both on the same page.
Another essential element of empathy is trying to place yourself in the speaker’s mindset. To imagine yourself in their position. To see and experience the world as they do, and as a result, get closer to feeling as they do, too. One thing that can help with this is to think of a time where you may have experienced something somewhat similar, to find something which you both have in common, and attempt to recall how you felt and how those events impacted you. However, while doing this, it is equally important to keep in mind that these experiences are still unique to this specific individual, as all of our experiences are, and that no matter how much we share in common, our experiences, challenges, and emotions are still our own, and no one else’s. No matter how hard we try, we may never truly, honestly, or factually be able to say, “I know exactly how you feel.”
The final step is deciding how to react to what the speaker has told us, and figuring out how we can help. To start, we recommend resisting the urge to pass judgement, and be cautious about offering advice — not just because you might say something they don’t want to hear, but also because sometimes the things we think are incredibly helpful, or even necessary, to say prove to be much less effective that we assume. It can make others to feel as though you see them as inferior or lacking in some way — perhaps too unintelligent to navigate their own life or oblivious to the severity of their situation — or as though you are trying to take away their autonomy to make their own decisions. Instead, we recommend a different tactic: ask the speaker what they need help with and ask how you can help, rather than assuming you know what is best for them.
As for how to implement empathy into a law practice? Here at Antol and Sherman, we practice empathy by taking the time and effort to really get to know our clients, as well as understanding them to be not just a client, or a person who has committed a crime, or even as a victim, but as a complex human with a complex life and unique human experiences. We use our connections with our clients as a resource to better understand how to defend them in court. Being able to relate who they are as a human being to the judge or jury will make their case more compelling, as well as making sure they get the legal aid they need and deserve.
“We practice empathy by taking the time and effort to really get to know our clients, as well as understanding them to be not just a client, or a person who has committed a crime, or even as a victim, but as a complex human with a complex life and unique human experiences.”
Our team of dedicated trial attorneys at Antol & Sherman, PC, have more than 60 years of combined legal experience and a strong track record of providing successful legal counsel. We have been practicing criminal, family and divorce, drug and DUI, and accident law in Flagstaff, Arizona and surrounding northern Arizona cities including Camp Verde, Sedona, Williams, Holbrook, Winslow, Cottonwood, Mayer, Seligman, Kingman, Page, St. Johns and more for over 30 years. Antol & Sherman, PC and their staff of lawyers would love to sit down and discuss your legal needs. Please call us at 928-241-6339, stop in today at Antol & Sherman, PC, 150 N Verde St Suite 102, Flagstaff, AZ 86001 or visit us at flagazlaw.com.