Empathy is important in almost every aspect of daily life. It allows us to nurture loving personal relationships, build strong workplaces, relate to others, and have compassion for people around the world. According to The Merriam-Webster Dictionary, “Empathy refers to the ability to relate to another person’s pain vicariously, as if one has experienced that pain themselves.”
While I certainly understand that definition, I know I’m not the only one who has dealt with someone who has shown anger or pain I just simply didn’t understand. Unfortunately, in an already challenging world, studies have shown empathy to be declining. Why? It could be a hypercompetitive environment, how we’ve been raised, the 24/7 barrage of information, a constant stream of global tragedy, or the ease with which we can see others as so very different than ourselves.
Have you ever thought about your ability to show empathy towards others? At home? In the office? With friends? Strangers? Take a few minutes to assess your self-awareness.
Rate yourself on each of the following statements using this scale:
1 (rarely) 2 (occasionally) 3 (sometimes) 4 (often) 5 (almost always)
____ I treat others with dignity and respect, regardless of their behaviour
____ I see the people I interact with as my equals
____ I am happy to explain things until the other person understands
____ I think it is important to give people choices
____ I believe if someone is upset or angry, they must have a valid reason
____ I enjoy working with others
____ I avoid interrupting someone, even when I know they’re wrong
____ I respond to others in a positive way
____ I believe it’s important that people choose to cooperate
____ I think people are generally reasonable
How did you do? Our goal should be a ‘5’ for each of these statements. Let’s talk about why empathy is so important… both to them and to us!
On some level, everyone longs for understanding and the way the other person sees themselves is critical to recognize. None of us think we’re being unreasonable or irrational, even when that is exactly how we appear to others. Maybe especially then! Part of what anger says is, “Look at how I’m feeling; you have to understand that this is a big deal to me!”
We all know that it’s ‘nice to be nice,’ but showing empathy is about so much more! To see that person the way they see themselves is the true essence of empathy and it gives you the ability to connect with people on a human level. Most significantly, it changes the way the other person sees you, and that will keep you safer!
By changing how others see you, you can change their behaviour. One of the most important things you can do for your safety is to read your audience. You must develop the ability to sense, from their verbal and non-verbal signals, whether you are coming across the way you want to. If you are not, you may have to adjust the way you are communicating with that person. Empathy is really about seeing the other person as they see themselves and seeing yourself as the other person sees you. If your perspective is always through the eyes of the other, it increases cooperation, balances power, and decreases stress!
For most of us, the biggest opportunity lies with identifying and bridging the gap between how we see ourselves and how we are seen by others. The good news is that empathy is a skill that can be increased. Whether you are in the office, dealing with a teenager, or in a social situation, here are three important steps to get you started.
1. Communicate Clearly!
Greet people in a courteous, open, non-judgemental manner. Think about how it feels when someone is finding fault with you, and how that affects the conversation. The other person will likely have biases to begin with, but the impact of those and their anger will decrease if you’re approachable and accepting of their message.
Listen actively by using your senses and expressing sincere interest in the situation through voice tone and inflection. We must make the deliberate choice to set aside our electronics and other distractions, as well as our own biases and feelings. Only when we give our undivided attention to someone can we truly hear them. Only then can we start to get a feeling for how they think and feel, and begin to understand their point of view.
Consider that no matter how angry someone is, their perspective makes perfect sense to them. Think about a time when you were in a similar situation and acknowledge the possibility that their point of view is reasonable in order to begin de-escalating their anger. You could say, “You know, I get why you might see things that way.”
Choose to look past the way a message is delivered and respond to the meaning of it in a caring manner. Ask yourself how you might feel if you knew you had not done something you were being accused of, or were sure you had met a work deadline that was showing as missed. What if you didn’t have enough money to buy groceries for your family and you had to argue to try and get a couple of dollars in late fees reversed? Whatever the situation, try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. You may not react as angrily as they are – or who knows, maybe you would – but chances are you would be upset, too!
Consistently deliver messages with appropriate volume, tone and positive word choice. Be clear and concise, using facts and sensitivity, especially when the information may be difficult to hear. Ask, don’t tell. Question to clarify. Be patient!
Remember that empathy and acknowledgement do not mean this is a ‘logical’ way to act, that you agree, or that you would react the same way when someone is upset. Do yourself and them a favour by simply accepting their point of view. Anger is almost always a result of either fear or shame. When I’m dealing with someone who seems unreasonably angry, I ask myself, “Is this person afraid, or are they ashamed?” and it often makes it easier to be more empathetic.
2. Read – Fiction!
When we read, and feel transported, our brains feel like they’re entering a new world! Although this may sound strange, a study out of the University of Buffalo shows that when you gain insight into how a character thinks and feels, it’s easier to relate to them and to – you guessed it – show empathy.
How can you do this in ‘real life?’ Listen and communicate clearly… see point 1!
3. Expand Your Horizons!
Examine how you view others and challenge pre-conceived ideas about groups of people, or individuals within them.
Push yourself outside your established comfort zone. This is an important step because it’s almost always easier to feel empathy for someone we are close to, socialize with, or are alike. When we’re brave enough to challenge ourselves, our empathy increases because we usually find we are much more alike than we are different! Maya Angelou once said, “I think we all have empathy. We may not have enough courage to display it."
Be courageous enough to see others the way they see themselves and to see yourself the way others see you. Bridge that gap with empathy and make the world a kinder, gentler and safer place for all of us!