If you look into the heart of your enemy, what would you find that would be different from your heart? Anonymous
Think of a time when you were going through a tough experience and someone showed you empathy. Whether it was a listening ear, their comforting presence or an act of kindness that made you feel seen and heard, we have all needed a helping hand to deal with with the pressures of life. In fact, the events of recent times have highlighted the need for us to show each other more empathy. But when you look at how divided we have become, the hate and intolerance we see in our societies, the suffering and hardships brought by the pandemic, as well as the plight of marginalized and minority communities, you might readily agree that we all need to be more empathetic in our personal and professional relationships and interactions.
What is Empathy?
In this post, I wanted to explore why empathy matters and how we can strengthen that muscle to get better at showing empathy to those around us. Let me begin by stating that empathy and sympathy are both important, but they are not one and the same. Research tells us that “Empathy is caring for others by trying to share in their feelings and experiences; sympathy is caring about them by feeling sorry for or concerned about them.”
For example, when a friend or colleague tells you that he/she has suffered the loss of a loved one, your most typical and immediate response is to offer your condolences to let them know that you are sorry for their loss. You might even go on to ask them if there is anything you can do to help. This is sympathy. Empathy goes beyond that and requires you to pause for a moment and imagine losing a loved one like that of the individual. Doing so would evoke a different level of emotions that would cause you to understand and get a real sense of pain that the other person is experiencing.
Empathy is feeling and allowing ourselves to walk in another’s persons shoes and trying to understand what they are feeling by tapping into those very emotions ourselves so that we can best connect with them and respond. With empathy, it is not so much about what you say in the moment, it is more about feeling the other person’s pain. Brene Brown, mostly widely recognized expert on the topic explains that the worst thing we can do to someone who is experiencing something painful is to try and make them feel better. What helps the person feel better is not our responses or trying to come up with the right words to say. Rather, it is the connection we make that helps the individual feel that we understand their pain. What brings the individual comfort is our presence. So, try to be there for the person and do not try to rationalize what is happening.
Why Empathy Matters?
There is a strong correlation between being resilient and empathy. In my last post I shared a personal experience with overcoming hardships and being resilient. A few readers reached out to express empathy and share how my story resonated with them and their own experiences. Their messages were encouraging and made me feel heard and understood. However, it is important to note that during that specific period and throughout the other difficult moments of both my personal and professional life, my ability to cope and push through was boosted by the people who showed me empathy with their presence, kindness, and support. In fact, I doubt I would have persevered through those difficult times without the support of family and friends who are like family. Empathy fuels resilience in us and in others.
The need to be empathetic and supportive of people also extends to every area of our personal and professional lives. Employers who want to have an engaged and productive workforce must listen to their employees. Managers also need to demonstrate concern and support for their people and not just their performance. Showing empathy to people who continue to balance the competing demands of working from home and those who are struggling to return to work amidst the ongoing pandemic is key to this. Additionally, couples without empathy for each other will see their relationships decline and fail. And parents also need to realize that children (young or old) have their own issues and we need to affirm them and make them feel special and seen.
The Struggle to Empathize
On a scale of 1-10, how empathetic are you? How do you treat others and their feelings? With this “everyone gets a trophy” generation, I’ll be the first to admit that I sometimes struggle with feeling empathy for some people who describe their lives as “hard.” Growing up without both parents, I believe my life was hard since I had to learn very early how to be independent and to look out for myself. As a result, I do not have a lot of patience for anyone I perceive as lazy, entitled, and expect things to go their way. This is primarily because my perspective of a “hard life” is very different from their view of a “hard life”. Because of my perceptions, I am guilty of listening to people talking about their situations and thinking to myself- if that is all that is wrong with your life, your life is good.
Now I realize that I have a bias, and that this is not an empathetic response. None of us should assess or minimize another person’s experience based on our own. Everyone one is entitled to their own feelings. Their experience though different from mine might be just as hard for them. No one needs to have a ‘worse’ story to deserve our empathy and kindness. Both our experiences can be true. And so, I am now very intentional about not casting judgment and instead I try to understand where the other person is coming from.
Besides, showing empathy can be hard for some people. This is not because these people are cold, unkind or unfeeling but mostly because they might struggle with owning their emotions and even allowing themselves to feel their feelings. Our emotional well-being as children, how we were socialized, and our life experiences can later impact our ability to connect with others and even our ability to show ourselves empathy. So in their efforts to cope, some people might bury their feelings or dismiss them as distracting. This practice is unhealthy and can prove detrimental to their emotional health and well-being and negatively impact their ability to connect with others and form lasting and positive relationships.
Additionally, we live in a technological age where some people are more connected to their devices than to their own feelings. Some people have more intimate relationships with their smart phones and pets than they do with the people around them. In fact, people can be together in the same space and still find themselves feeling lonely because they believe no one understands them, sees them or cares about how they feel. This increases social isolation which can cause depression and other mental health issues. The struggle to express our feelings and connect with others become even more worrisome as we rely on emojis and emoticons to communicate our thoughts and feelings and stop verbalizing them. In so doing, we miss opportunities to open up, understand and support each other.
Four Ways to Be More Empathetic
Empathy is a skill that we can all learn and develop and the more we practice it, the stronger the muscle becomes. Here are four ways that you can show more empathy and develop your skills to walk in other person’s shoes:
- Suspend Judgement: Casting judgment is the fastest way to build walls and break connections in relationships. This especially true when one person seeks to impose their biases and assumptions on another. Instead of doing that, try to feel what the other person might be feeling and see the situation through their eyes. Give them the benefit of the doubt.
- Seek to Understand: It is easy to be kind to people you like and agree with. But, can you show kindness to someone who does not look like you or believe like you do? Rather than dismissing people whose perspectives and experiences might be different from yours, try asking questions to learn more and expand your point of view. We don’t have to agree to understand. Be curious!
- Follow the “Platinum Rule’: Instead of the “golden rule” that says we should treat people the way we want to be treated, try the “platinum rule” that says we are to treat people the way they want to be treated. Afterall, no two people are the same. How I deal with hardships, my ability to be resilient (see last post) is different from another person’s capacity to cope.
- Practice Active Listening: This is not listening to respond with all your ideas or suggestions. Active listening and empathetic listening requires you to pay attention to the person’s face, emotions, words and even to the things that they are not saying. Notice the emotions on their face, the tone of their voice (anger, excitement, the break in voice when someone is about the cry). Try to listen to the whole person and let the person know that you feel their pain.
In conclusion, empathy stirs up compassion in us and can move us to action so that we can help others. So, the next time you see someone struggling, flex your empathy muscle and try to see the situation from their eyes. When we do that, we will be another step closer to make our homes, communities, countries, and the world a better and kinder place to live.
Until next time, Remember, It’s a Learning Life!