What Does It Mean to Understand People’s Feelings?
We begin to understand what one feels when we share their emotions. That helps us develop empathy and make sense of their attitude.
I discovered a way to get in touch with one's emotional state and properly judge their feelings by physically putting yourself in their shoes. You can do that by imitating or cloning their posture, stance, and gestures.
Cloning one’s posture in that manner is an effective method, and it results in feeling empathy for that person.
So how do we do that so that we can truly get in touch with their emotional state and recognize the feelings they are having? I'll review everything you need to know to achieve that.
Insight Into One’s Point of View
I discovered the process of copying one's posture when I read an explanation of empathy in Psychology Today. According to that description, empathy is the animated enactment of another person's thoughts and feelings from their point of view rather than from one's own.1
Therefore, I realized how valuable copying one's body posture could be. By doing that, we can begin to understand their point of view. I think that works because we put ourselves into a position to feel the same feelings and emotions they have. I have used that method several times already, and it worked each time.
The Detailed Process of Cloning One's Posture
To fully understand what's going on for another person and get in touch with their feelings, you need to grasp their emotions as you listen to them talk.
Their feelings and emotions can be detected and felt with startling realism. You can do that by holding yourself in the same body position as theirs. For example:
- Try making the same facial expression.
- Hold your shoulders the same.
- Position your arms and legs the same as theirs.
- Lean similarly to how they are leaning.
What I mean by this is to clone everything about their posture accurately. That includes carrying out their mannerisms. When you do all this, you'll find that you can actually experience their mood, temper, and frame of mind. You will feel all this yourself, and you will understand where they are coming from a lot better.
You need to pay attention to their facial expression. Try to imitate it. You'll immediately feel something different, possibly in line with what they are feeling.
The shoulders tend to hold a lot of stress. So notice how they are holding their shoulders and imitate that. If they are slouching, then do the same. Lean in or out similarly to how they are leaning. All this will reproduce the feeling of their stress level in your own mind.
I think this works well because it puts you in the same physical state as theirs. So you'd be doing it in reverse—rather than having the same stimuli affecting you, you're merely putting your body in the same mold, and therefore can feel the same feelings.
Learning How to Judge Feelings
It’s often challenging to get to know what one feels. This struggle is even more apparent when we realize how difficult it is to get in touch with our own feelings.
When you try to determine a person’s feelings, their defense mechanisms make it difficult to judge their true emotions. That’s why it helps to pay attention to other indicators to know how one feels.
Joan Cusack Handler, Ph.D., gave a detailed explanation of identifying your feelings in her article in Psychology Today.2 She discusses how to make sense of what you feel. I think her examples work well to understand another person’s feelings too. A few ideas she covers are:
- Determine the most prominent feeling.
- Identify what’s triggering a stressful feeling.
- Look for patterns and think about what they mean.
- Consider how defense mechanisms might avoid feelings and emotions.
In my opinion, learning to be empathetic to one’s feelings starts with appreciating our own challenges. Dr. Handler’s article is a valuable resource for this analysis.
How to Experience What Someone Else Is Feeling
Getting in touch with the thoughts and feelings of others may be difficult if we don't feel their emotions. We end up missing what's going on for them, and we can't judge where they are coming from with what they do or say?
One of the points in the definition of empathy above is that we need to eliminate our personal point of view. That helps us focus on what the other person's body posture is telling us. The best way to feel their feelings is to simulate what their body is doing. We do that by cloning their posture.
With many social interactions, we often tend to know very little about one another. We miss out on the innermost feelings one may have. There is nothing more gratifying than having someone genuinely understand the meaning of what one is saying.
When we have a conversation with someone, we can usually be sure that their words are carefully selected to filter their emotions and feelings. Effective communication requires understanding the true meaning of what someone is saying and grasping the feelings behind it.
When we pay attention to non-verbal physical communication and clone the other person's posture, that gives us the ability to feel what they are feeling, and we find it easier to express empathy.
Seeing Things From Their Perspective
We can learn much more by watching how the other person is holding their body and the movements they make. That's a form of physical communication where one's gestures are observed.
If they tend to face away or turn their entire body facing sideways, they may have a feeling of flight—the desire the get away from a situation.
Their hands tell a lot too. Whatever is going on in their thoughts may be physically communicated through the way they hold or move their hands. If they are angry, they may be holding their hands tightly in a clenched fist. Cupping or holding their hands can indicate that they are confused and trying hard to understand. Covering the mouth could mean one is lying or merely not sure of themselves.
If they are relaxed, they may just let their hands hang on their sides or in their pockets. Pocketed hands are a meaningless position, however. Many men do that just because it's a comfortable way to stand.
Observe Body Language to Learn How One Feels
You can detect how a person feels by observing their body language in addition to copying their posture. For example, they might feel uncomfortable, and when you put yourself into the same stance as you see them, you might experience that same awkward feeling.
You'll be able to acknowledge their general mood and become more empathetic to their emotional state. Once you achieve that, you'll be in a position to validate their feelings.3
Much of the way people hold themselves presents non-verbal communication. You can learn a lot from that when you pay close attention.
Non-Verbal Communication Through Body Parts
- Face: Shows emotion.
- Covering mouth: This could mean one is lying.
- Shoulders: Shows stress level.
- Arms: Shows one’s mood.
- Hands: Despite cultural differences, hands can illustrate thoughts (see details below).
- Legs: Despite upbringing and gender differences, leg positions can indicate comfort, disinterest or insecurity.
Non-Verbal Communication Through Hand Gestures
- Clenched Fist: Shows Anger.
- Hands in Pockets: This is meaningless. People sometimes merely feel more relaxed this way.
- Hands Held: Sometimes means that one is confused.
Show Compassion With Active Listening Skills
There is one final thought dealing with understanding another person, and that depends on how we react while we are the listener.
When we are in a conversation, and the other person is talking, are we really listening? Or are we reacting?
So that we can really know what the other person is all about, we need to know what is going on for us as well. We need to realize how we react to the thoughts and feelings that they are expressing.
To explain what I mean, think back to a time when you had a strong feeling about something that someone was telling you. How were you reacting?
- Were you reacting to his or her feelings?
- Or were you reacting to your feelings about the subject?
It's very possible that we may respond to things based on our own feelings, but if we genuinely want to feel empathy with the other person, we have to put a considerable effort into viewing the world from their perspective. That's done by observing their body language.
Then we need to include one other important thing. We need to confirm what we surmised. We can do that by rephrasing what we heard and saying it back to them. Then getting a confirmation that we "got it."
That will validate our desire to understand what is being said. It will show that their feelings are important to us.
Psychologist Carl Rogers described the process of “active listening,” whereby the listener explains what they heard until there is a mutual agreement between the listener and the speaker.4
If you are not sure you understood something, just ask. If you are not getting it, say so.
They should be pleased that you are trying to comprehend their expressed thoughts. If they really want to be understood, then they should not be intimidated by the extra effort you're making. You will be creating the opportunity to communicate better and with the least amount of misunderstanding.
We can make a worthy attempt at getting closer to the correct meaning of what the other person is trying to tell us and how they feel by remembering these tricks:
- Pay attention to body language.
- Physically position yourself similar to their stance.
- Imitate their physical gestures to sense their feelings.
- Practice active listening.
Experiencing one's feelings in this manner will help you relate to them on a more profound level.
- Empathy | Psychology Today
- Joan Cusack Handler, Ph.D. (January 19, 2018). “Identifying Your Feelings” - Psychology Today
- Paul Chernyak, LPC. (January 15, 2022). “How to Validate Someone's Feelings” - WikiHow
- Carl R Rogers (1957), Active Listening, (ASIN: B0007FAIPA), Industrial Relations Center, The University of Chicago
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2009 Glenn Stok