Lessons In Empathy

Friday, 28 August 2015 | Tags: , , ,

When something significant happens in my life, I go to any one of my three sisters to share, ask for advice or vent. The nature of the subject matter determines who I reach out to; like if I score a designer sweater on sale or I need to talk for hours (maybe days) about that person who wronged me, I go to the ever-patient fashion-loving Amy.  Then when I need a behavioural analysis that holds nothing back, its straight to the psycho analyst Lisa.

And when I feel like the world is against me I pick up the phone to Laura, where its all empathy all the time.  An empathetic response just seems to come naturally to some people. And not at all to others. I’d always considered one’s capacity for empathy – or lack thereof – to be an ingrained character trait.

But consider the definition of empathy, according to Webster’s Dictionary:

“The feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions; the ability to share someone else’s feelings.”

It turns out empathy is a learned habit. And that’s good news for just about everyone, because it is impossible to develop deep trust and lasting relationships without empathy being present. And while I suppose it’s possible to be overly empathetic, I suspect most of us could use a nudge toward being empathetic more often. (Or a big shove.)

My favourite American scholar and best selling author Brené Brown calls empathy a choice. And it is a brave one at that because at its core empathy requires vulnerability. It requires us to put aside judgement and recognize that another person’s perspective is their own truth. Empathy isn’t about, say, the actions of another person and whether you agree with them, but rather their feelings around those actions. And that’s where vulnerability comes in. Empathy requires us to go inside ourselves and connect with the parts of us that understand the feelings the other is having.

For example, when your friend loses her job and feels scared and insecure, you don’t have to have experienced a job loss to be empathetic. You just have to know what it’s like to feel scared and insecure. That’s empathy.

Poor listening skills are a big roadblock to empathy. When someone is sharing with you, whether it’s a family member or a subordinate at work, the first thing to do is stop all other activities. Turn away from the screen, turn off the TV. Sit down, one on one. It’s helpful to repeat back what they say so that both you and they are clear you are hearing what’s being said. Be present and listen hard.

Curiosity is a common trait among highly empathetic people. They are the ones who talk to strangers on the bus. They ask questions. So why not take time to get to know someone outside of your regular social circle? There is a man who lives on my street who I used to think of as creepy. So I decided to exercise my curious nature and now I see he is a regular guy, living a regular life. He has become a trusted neighbour and doesn’t even mind when my dog craps on his lawn. (We always clean up, of course.)

Another key is that that being empathetic is not about offering solutions or looking at the bright side. It’s about sitting in the muck together and connecting around the same feelings.

Empathy begets connection.  And connection with others begets a meaningful human existence. Authentic, deep connection trumps everything. So what are you waiting for?

For more tools on how to be empathetic, check out this article in Psychology Today.

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  • Jim Wright

    Very interesting. I particularly like the part about your neighbour – what you felt originally is so human nature. Kudos to you for figuring it all out. That is more rare I think, than perhaps you realize??