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The Importance of Empathy
“Compassion is the keen awareness of the interdependence of all things.”
What is Empathy?
Empathy is the ability to come alongside someone, and not only see a person’s point of view, but also experience the other person’s feelings and emotions. You go beyond , for example, feeling sorry for that person, since that would be sympathy. And go deeper, seeking to understand that person in greater depth. It is an ability that you can acquire if you make the effort
Empathy is the skill to understand the emotions of people and to treat them according to their emotional reaction. This skill is closely linked with emotional intelligence which is basically analysing, assessing and managing the emotion of oneself and others. So by developing and practicing this skill not only you resolve someone’s problems but also win their hearts.
What Does Empathy Do?
Empathy soothes. Empathy heals. Empathy fills the gap; empathy is like the “Super Glue” of good relationships. It can pull you tightly to others and keep you together in all kinds of trouble.
Imagine – Use your imagination in several ways to your advantage.
- One way is to imagine yourself in that person’s situation. Really take time to think through how you would feel if you were in that person’s shoes—especially regarding the feelings they are experiencing.
- Another way is to imagine the person as a child. If you have photos of the person as a child, use them to help you visualise. Often when we consider the person in the vulnerable stage of childhood, our defenses tend to lower and lessen.
Nurture the Relationship
Make a point to regularly practice caring behaviors with this person. When you act lovingly or caringly toward someone, it actually increases your feelings of love and care, as well as, your ability to empathise with that person.
Set Aside Your Beliefs, Concerns and Personal Agenda
When you are dealing directly with others, go into the conversation empty handed—with no personal expectations or goal of fixing them. Your only agenda is listening to their feelings and trying to understand their point of view.
Identify with Their Experiences
When someone begins to share, focus on the feelings and situations that you’ve experienced in the past that are similar. This will deepen your emotional insight into the other person’s issues or plight.
Gain Personal Perspective
This method involves working on your personal identity. In other words, you need to learn who you are separate from the other person. If you do not have a clear sense of identity, then you can become “enmeshed” (emotionally entangled and dependent upon the other person) and will tend to take things too personally. When you take things personally, you cannot separate yourself enough to feel the other person’s issues. Begin to practice emotionally detaching—not allowing the other person’s negative behavior to determine your mood or choices. In time, you will gain a greater sense of identity and separateness that will offer you the advantage of perspective.
Habit 1: Cultivate curiosity about strangers
Highly empathic people (HEPs) have an insatiable curiosity about strangers. They will talk to the person sitting next to them on the bus, having retained that natural inquisitiveness we all had as children, but which society is so good at beating out of us. They find other people more interesting than themselves but are not out to interrogate them, respecting the advice of the oral historian Studs Terkel: “Don’t be an examiner, be the interested inquirer.”
Curiosity expands our empathy when we talk to people outside our usual social circle, encountering lives and worldviews very different from our own. Curiosity is good for us too: Happiness guru Martin Seligman identifies it as a key character strength that can enhance life satisfaction.
Cultivating curiosity requires more than having a brief chat about the weather. Crucially, it tries to understand the world inside the head of the other person. We are confronted by strangers every day, like the heavily tattooed woman who delivers your mail or the new employee who always eats his lunch alone. Set yourself the challenge of having a conversation with one stranger every week. All it requires is courage.
Habit 2: Challenge prejudices and discover commonalities
We all have assumptions about others and use collective labels—e.g., “Muslim fundamentalist,” “welfare mom”—that prevent us from appreciating their individuality. HEPs challenge their own preconceptions and prejudices by searching for what they share with people rather than what divides them.
Habit 3: Try another person’s life
So you think ice climbing and hang-gliding are extreme sports? Then you need to try experiential empathy, the most challenging—and potentially rewarding—of them all. HEPs expand their empathy by gaining direct experience of other people’s lives, putting into practice the Native American proverb, “Walk a mile in another man’s moccasins before you criticise him.”
George Orwell is an inspiring model. After several years as a colonial police officer in British Burma in the 1920s, Orwell returned to Britain determined to discover what life was like for those living on the social margins. “I wanted to submerge myself, to get right down among the oppressed,” he wrote. So he dressed up as a tramp with shabby shoes and coat, and lived on the streets of East London with beggars and vagabonds. The result, recorded in his book Down and Out in Paris and London, was a radical change in his beliefs, priorities, and relationships. He not only realized that homeless people are not “drunken scoundrels”—Orwell developed new friendships, shifted his views on inequality and gathered some superb literary material. It was the greatest travel experience of his life. He realised that empathy doesn’t just make you good—it’s good for you, too.
We can each conduct our own experiments. If you are religiously observant, try a “God Swap,” attending the services of faiths different from your own, including a meeting of Humanists. Or if you’re an atheist, try attending different churches! Spend your next vacation living and volunteering in a village in a developing country. Take the path favored by philosopher John Dewey, who said, “All genuine education comes about through experience.”
Habit 4: Listen hard—and open up
There are two traits required for being an empathic conversationalist.
One is to master the art of radical listening. “What is essential,” says Marshall Rosenberg, psychologist and founder of Non-Violent Communication (NVC), “is our ability to be present to what’s really going on within—to the unique feelings and needs a person is experiencing in that very moment.” HEPs listen hard to others and do all they can to grasp their emotional state and needs, whether it is a friend who has just been diagnosed with cancer or a spouse who is upset at them for working late yet again.
But listening is never enough. The second trait is to make ourselves vulnerable. Removing our masks and revealing our feelings to someone is vital for creating a strong empathic bond. Empathy is a two-way street that, at its best, is built upon mutual understanding—an exchange of our most important beliefs and experiences.
Habit 5: Inspire mass action and social change
We typically assume empathy happens at the level of individuals, but HEPs understand that empathy can also be a mass phenomenon that brings about fundamental social change.
Just think of the movements against slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries on both sides of the Atlantic. As journalist Adam Hochschild reminds us, “The abolitionists placed their hope not in sacred texts but human empathy,” doing all they could to get people to understand the very real suffering on the plantations and slave ships. Equally, the international trade union movement grew out of empathy between industrial workers united by their shared exploitation. The overwhelming public response to the Asian tsunami of 2004 emerged from a sense of empathic concern for the victims, whose plight was dramatically beamed into our homes on shaky video footage.
Beyond education, the big challenge is figuring out how social networking technology can harness the power of empathy to create mass political action. Twitter may have gotten people onto the streets for Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring, but can it convince us to care deeply about the suffering of distant strangers, whether they are drought-stricken farmers in Africa or future generations who will bear the brunt of our carbon-junkie lifestyles? This will only happen if social networks learn to spread not just information, but empathic connection.
Habit 6: Develop an ambitious imagination
A final trait of HEPs is that they do far more than empathize with the usual suspects. We tend to believe empathy should be reserved for those living on the social margins or who are suffering. This is necessary, but it is hardly enough.
We also need to empathize with people whose beliefs we don’t share or who may be “enemies” in some way. If you are a campaigner on global warming for instance, it may be worth trying to step into the shoes of oil company executives—understanding their thinking and motivations—if you want to devise effective strategies to shift them towards developing renewable energy.
Empathising with adversaries is also a route to social tolerance. That was Gandhi’s thinking during the conflicts between Muslims and Hindus leading up to Indian independence in 1947, when he declared, “I am a Muslim! And a Hindu, and a Christian and a Jew.”
Organisations, too, should be ambitious with their empathic thinking. Bill Drayton, the renowned “father of social entrepreneurship,” believes that in an era of rapid technological change, mastering empathy is the key business survival skill because it underpins successful teamwork and leadership.
The 20th century was the Age of Introspection, when self-help and therapy culture encouraged us to believe that the best way to understand who we are and how to live was to look inside ourselves. But it left us gazing at our own navels. The 21st century should become the Age of Empathy, when we discover ourselves not simply through self-reflection, but by becoming interested in the lives of others. We need empathy to create a new kind of revolution. Not an old-fashioned revolution built on new laws, institutions, or policies, but a radical revolution in human relationship