The Golden Rule has been letting me down my entire life.
While “treat others as you would like to be treated” makes sense on the surface, it really only works if you assume that people more or less prefer to be treated in the same way.
Unfortunately, this isn’t always true. And it can cause some serious communication barriers.
I am a member of a rare group of people who are driven more by logic than emotion. Think Ramit, Tim Ferriss, and Mr. Spock.
As a female member of this low-emotion group, I’m even more rare. Like a pink unicorn.
You probably know a few people like me. We are often described as “cold” and “aloof,” but are also considered “low drama” and great problem solvers. We are rarely known for our suave people skills.
It wasn’t until I started blogging that the limitations of my low-emotional brain (and The Golden Rule) became obvious to me.
What losing weight taught me about empathy
Like many women, I spent much of my life struggling with my weight and have done virtually every diet on the planet. Most of the plans worked for a few weeks or months, but inevitably the weight would come back––with a few extra pounds to boot.
Frustrated after 15 years of dieting failures, I delved into the scientific literature to figure out what I was doing wrong. From the research, I learned that most of the advice I was given about health and weight loss was incorrect, and that dieting is actually a better way to gain weight than to lose it. D’oh.
Armed with this new knowledge I stopped dieting and finally lost weight for good. The change this produced in my life was so profound that I decided to switch careers to help others do the same.
When I first launched Summer Tomato, my instinct was to help people by correcting the information they had, thinking that, like me, all they needed were better data. I wrote about all the tactics that I knew worked for weight loss, like throwing away processed “health foods” and eating more vegetables and other Real Foods.
But while people were intrigued by my results, I mostly heard excuses about why they couldn’t take action:
“I’d love to lose weight, but I hate vegetables so I can’t.”
“Cook for myself after work? No freaking way I have time for that.”
“I’d rather die than run on the dreadmill.”
“Real Food is too expensive. You’re an elitist.”
This was my first indication that other people were a lot less like me than I had assumed, and it was preventing me from helping them achieve their goals.
To get to the root of this problem I have spent the past several years focused on the psychology of behavioral change: aka how to help people act on and actually achieve their health and weight loss goals. I’ve since listened to and analyzed virtually every excuse imaginable that people use for not taking care of themselves, and have figured out how to get around them and get real results.
The biggest insight I gained, however, wasn’t simply what to communicate, but how to communicate it.
Are you less emotional than most people?
It turns out what distinguishes low-emotional people from regular people (if you’re a follower of Jungian psychology you might call these people Thinkers and Feelers, respectively) is how much we rely on empathy to communicate.
Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person. Normal people rely heavily on empathy for most interactions. If you’re wondering why this needs explaining, you’re probably normal. But if you’re a Thinker like me, this could be news to you.
Thinkers, unlike Feelers, have a very low need for empathy. We don’t need to feel “heard” or “understood” in order to connect with someone. For this reason, we have difficulty understanding the need for empathy in others.
This is where The Golden Rule breaks down.
More often than not, the emotional component of a tactical problem such as losing weight, seems obvious and somewhat trivial to a Thinker. Of course you want to get healthy and look great. We all do. Duh. Instead, we prefer to skip straight to possible solutions.
Unfortunately, unless the person receiving the advice also happens to be a Thinker, even the best information will likely go unheeded.
Feeler: “I would really love to lose 15 lbs.”
Thinker: “That’s easy, just do X.”
Feeler: “…but this other thing in my life is really important.… “
Thinker: “Just do X.”
Feeler: Rolls eyes, does nothing.
Thinker: Rolls eyes, sighs in frustration.
It isn’t that Thinkers do not have emotions or the capacity for empathy. In fact, in an obviously emotional situation such as a bad break up or losing a loved one, we can be very empathetic and great friends to have.
It is in situations where emotions aren’t front and center, especially those that involve advice or problem solving, where a Thinker’s lack of understanding of a Feeler’s emotional needs will prevent effective communication.
The good news is that empathetic communication can be learned. With practice, even low-emotional people can be empathetic in situations that involve advice or problem solving.
If you’re a Thinker, developing the skill of empathy will allow your advice to reach more people and have far greater impact.
Here are the essential steps for empathetic communication:
Step 1: Listen deeply for the emotional undertone of what someone is saying
As a Thinker, your natural tendency is to listen solely for facts. This is great for problem solving, but remember that to get a person to listen to your advice you also need to address their emotions.
For example, when someone says: “I would really love to lose 15 lbs.”
You hear: “I need tactics to lose a moderate amount of body fat.”
They really mean: “I need to feel supported by XYZ.”
But behind the words is a deeper emotion that can’t be addressed by tactics, and your job is to figure out what that is. Instead of skipping straight to the advice, try to uncover her hopes, fears, and dreams.
Instead of: “That’s easy, just do X.” Ask: “Oh really? What have you tried?”
Listen for signs of fear, frustration, hope, and other underlying emotions. Pay attention to the words they are using, as well as tone and body language if you’re speaking in person.
Sometimes people are straightforward in explaining their fears and say things like, “I’m afraid I’ll put in all this effort and still fail.” Fear of failure is extremely common, and being able to recognize it essential.
However, you may need to ask additional questions to get to the core emotion. The use of generic statements that start with “I know I should…”, “I don’t have time…”, or “I don’t like (insert any broad category or action)…” imply that there is a fear or aversion lying below the surface of their words that they are avoiding.
Similarly, generalization statements and using words like “always” or “never” imply an underlying invisible script that reflects a hidden emotion. Continue asking “why?” until you get an answer.
For instance, if a woman tells me she would like to cook healthy meals but that it is always too much work, I’ll ask her why it’s so hard. Often I’ll hear something like, “My husband refuses to eat anything healthy, so I’m forced to make two separate meals if I want to eat well.”
Now we’re getting somewhere.
Step 2: Try to name the core emotion
From the above response, you might guess the woman feels unappreciated, frustrated, helpless or insecure about her cooking skills. Once you think you have a good idea of what her emotional state is, test your hypothesis by asking directly:
“Wow, that must be incredibly frustrating. Why do you think he’s so stubborn?”
“I think it’s because his mother was a terrible cook, so he won’t even try anything I make except meat and boiled potatoes. I’m actually a pretty good cook, but he won’t give me a chance.”
She feels frustrated and unappreciated.
Step 3: Relate to the emotion to show understanding
Once you’ve discovered the core emotion, you must show that you can relate to the feeling. There are several ways you can do this:
Sometimes simply repeating back or “mirroring” the emotion is enough to demonstrate your understanding.
This can feel very basic and pointless if you’re a Thinker, but it is in fact incredibly effective. If you’re new to empathetic communication, this is the perfect place to start practicing. Once you see how effective this technique can be it gets easier to use it in everyday conversations:
“You’re a great cook and he won’t even try your food. That must feel terrible.”
“Yeah, it really sucks.”
Sharing an experience you’ve had that evoked a similar emotion is also an excellent way to show your understanding. This is called vulnerability.
Vulnerability is a more advanced form of empathetic communication, but it is by far the most effective technique if you can master it.
Everyone has stories and emotions that relate to those of others. The difficulty for a Thinker is remembering to share the emotion rather than the tactical solution. From the listener’s perspective though the more you share, the more you care:
“Oh man, my dad is the same way. I made the most amazing brussels sprouts for Thanksgiving and he wouldn’t even touch them. I put bacon on them and everything. It was so upsetting, I’d hate to go through that every single night.”
“Yeah, it makes it really hard.”
Another way to show your understanding is to validate the emotions by explaining with logic how you can see their point of view.
Thinkers can be quite good at this, since it plays to our natural tendency to be rational. The major difference here is that we’re focusing on the emotion rather than solving the problem:
“You put in all that work of shopping and preparing delicious food so you can have a tasty and healthy dinner, and he won’t even try it once. That doesn’t seem fair to you. And besides, heart disease runs in his family. He should at least give you the benefit of the doubt and try to eat a little better. After all, you’re only doing it because you love him.”
“Totally. I don’t understand why he can’t see that.”
Note that this technique works even if you disagree with the person’s analysis. However explaining that you understand how they came to their conclusion can create the necessary emotional connection. You can work on correcting their logic after that connection is established.
Step 4: Withhold judgment
If you’re a Thinker, chances are you knew what the person’s problem was within the first few moments of the conversation. However, it is essential that you withhold judgment of the other person’s actions, feelings or goals, or she will immediately shut you out.
In the example above, old Darya would have instantly exclaimed, “Stop using the word healthy! Nobody wants to eat “healthy” food. Think that’ll get you anywhere with him? Hell no.”
And I would have received the predictable response:
“Hmmm… I don’t know. I don’t think he’ll ever eat the vegetables I make.”
Even worse would have been if I’d judged her feelings:
“Don’t feel bad about him, you know what’s best. Just feed him whatever you want and if he doesn’t like it he can cook for himself.”
“Hmmm… maybe.” Silently thinks: no way I’m jeopardizing my marriage for a stupid plate of broccoli. This chick has no idea what she’s talking about.
Telling people they are wrong has the opposite effect of empathy, and instead conveys to them that they are not understood. If you wish to be a helpful and effective communicator, you must resist the urge to rush to judgment.
Step 5: Offer advice last
Once you’ve listened carefully to the other person’s situation and demonstrated your understanding of their emotions without expressing judgment, you can carefully begin offering advice.
Low-emotion people tend to assume that the help they have to offer is the most important part of the conversation and like to offer it immediately. But someone will be far more likely to listen and accept your advice if you first establish a deeper connection.
By the way, if you’re a Feeler offering advice to a Thinker, feel free to skip steps 1-4 and jump right into the advice. We appreciate it.
Empathy takes practice
Learning to communicate effectively if you’re not naturally an emotional person can be very difficult. For myself, learning to be more empathetic felt like learning a new language. I had to train my mind to listen carefully for hidden emotional meaning, translate it internally, then formulate the appropriate response. Now that I’ve had a bit of practice it feels more natural, but it wasn’t easy. (Did you notice how I talked about my feelings in this paragraph? That took serious work.)
Your challenge is to start practicing empathetic communication in everyday life. If empathy doesn’t come naturally to you, strike up a conversation with someone and simply listen for how they are feeling about the topic. Ask questions to try to get to the core emotion, and resist giving advice. It’s hard, but it’s a muscle you need to exercise if you ever want people to listen to you.
Have you ever tried to give advice to someone and they didn’t listen? What could you have done differently?
Darya Rose, Ph.D. is the author of Foodist, and creator of Summer Tomato, one of TIME’s 50 Best Websites. She eats amazing things daily and hasn’t even considered going a diet since 2007