Definition – What is empathy all about?
Being able to empathize means to be capable of identifying and understanding another person’s feelings, without experiencing them for yourself at that particular moment. It is – just as previously discussed – the ability to literally experience the world from another person’s perspective; to walk in their shoes, to view life from their living conditions and to feel what it feels like to be that person.
The noun em•pa•thy refers to
* the ability to comprehend another person’s actions and emotions
* the identification of thoughts and emotional states within others
* the capacity to understand a persons (emotional) reaction
* the awareness of another’s problems, without experiencing them
which can be – in general – understood as the ability of a person to understand others or to “see where they are coming from”. In contrast to this, the personality trait of a person that is incapable of empathizing with others would be defined as a sociopath.
Surprisingly, the ability to empathize with others is relative to a person’s capacity to identify, feel and understand his own feelings and thereby being able to project one’s feelings onto others. This means in turn that it becomes complicated at times to understand what a person is undergoing, if you haven’t undergone it for yourself – or at least felt similar feelings. The outcome of this can be seen in our day-to-day lives; it’s relatively easy to laugh about someone who is not as tall as you, or to rant about “the lazy unemployed” when you have never been unemployed in your life, or grown up in riches. But once you experience for yourself what it feels like to be teased about your body height or the difficulty to find a job, your point of view might change drastically and also how you feel about those who are facing a similar situation.
Another aspect that empathy depends on is emotional intelligence. This kind of intelligence has not so much to do with mental skills (intellect) or the intellectual ability to study an emotion, but a lot more with actually experiencing these emotions. A person that has experienced a variety of emotional states and feelings throughout its life – from the heights of victory, happiness and joy to the depths of defeat, sadness and anxiety – will find it easier to understand another person’s problems and feelings. Furthermore, emotional intelligence enables a person to empathize with someone, without the need to have felt likewise in the past. Basically, it’s the mental projection into the emotional state of mind of another person, allowing you to identify their feelings.
How to develop and increase empathy?
1. Walk a mile in someone’s shoes – figuratively
Now, if you think about the events of the last two weeks, I’m pretty sure that there was at least one person, a colleague, your boss or even a friend – whosoever – that has angered you for any reason. If you reflect what happened in this situation, angered emotions might stir up again, but this time try to recall the situation – if possible – as unemotional as possible. You can think about your standpoint, your argumentation and the reasoning behind YOUR behavior for a short while. But then, try to step into the shoes of your counterpart – the person that angered you so much. This might be difficult to begin with, but give your very best and slip into the role of that person and try to view the whole world from that person’s perspective, just for a couple of minutes. Attempt to leave your opinion of your counterpart aside for a while, no matter how arrogant, illogical or full of himself that person appears in your opinion. While in this state of unbiasedness it will hopefully be possible to identify and understand the reasoning behind your opponent’s behavior, whether you approve of it or not is not so important. By understanding the reasons behind your counterpart’s behavior you have mastered an important hurdle on your path towards compassion. Don’t be discouraged if you do not spot the reasoning immediately – every (sane) person has a reason for what they do, it’s just sometimes really difficult to discover and understand that particular reason.
Basically, it’s the switch in perspectives David Nichtern is speaking about in his article on the pursuit of happiness: developing empathy for others. He not only says that you should ask yourself what the situation looks like to the other person, but also that this kind of “switch in perspective is the basis for developing empathy.”
2. Developing empathy out of a person’s motive
I think that once you understand at least the motive behind a person’s action, it’s by far easier to empathize with them. (Please note that we are speaking of regular people you come into contact in your daily life, not criminals!). Your boss, for instance, might be very demanding at times, but maybe you’ll notice that his pressuring bosses could be the reason for this. Maybe, he hasn’t experienced any other management style than his own bosses are setting an example of. By realizing this, you could clearly see that your boss is just a product of his environment, unable to comprehend his misbehavior.
The very same holds true with a person’s background, personal circumstances, education and so on. In many cases, people will start an argument with an uninvolved third party just to let off steam, or because they are still lost in thoughts about an exasperating situation. Therefore, you should not only seek for the reasoning behind a person’s action, but also try to understand how it would FEEL like to be your counterpart. From that particular moment where you understand just a slight fraction of the problems and feelings your counterpart is facing in life, it will become easier for you to empathize with them.
3. Replace anger with compassion
Once you get a hang of stepping into another person’s shoes, you can try to implement this technique into your daily life – in real time. Make it an intention of yours to respond with understanding instead of anger. Thereby, you can avoid leaping to conclusions and hasty reactions you might regret later. For instance, the next time someone angrily hoots with his car horn at you, try to think for a moment what reason might have led this person to hoot at you, instead of reacting instantly by making gestures or screaming insults. That way, you might discover that your opponent was just offended or is in a rush – which is none of your business and not worth your attention at all.
At some point, you might automatically step into another’s shoes before responding emotionally, allowing you to come to a wiser conclusion than starting an argument or a fight, for instance.
4. Discover the similarities, not the differences
In this (often times) self-centered world, it seems that many have forgotten that not only they are on a pursuit of happiness, but everyone else is as well. Naturally, this is doomed to cause conflicts, as by centering the whole world on ourselves, we tend to forget about others, which is causing us to see by far more differences between ourselves and “them”. But in reality, we are all the same. No matter of our ethical background, skin color or religious orientation – we all are striving for happiness, peacefulness and love. Also, each of us is trying to avoid sadness and suffering at best. So, instead of being blinded by the differences that superficially separate you from another person, try to acknowledge the commonalities you share with this person.
5. Don’t judge too hastily
When we meet a person for the first time, we immediately put them into boxes, subconsciously, if we want it or not. The first impressions can have a long lasting effect on what we think about a person – until we really get to know them better. Often times, we don’t even think much about this process happening and allow our “intuition” guide us when forming an opinion about others. It is important that you realize that this is a natural process unfolding that unfortunately creates a lot of biases. In order to empathize with others, it’s crucial to set aside your biases and generalizations, in order to see behind the façade.
Before you judge someone, ask yourself if you know this person inside out and if you know what made them the person that they are today. If you can understand what they go through day after day, if you can relate to them and what it must feel like to be in their position, then you can form an opinion about them, without being biased. Notwithstanding, it should be noted that unless you really experienced the exact same situation as another person, with the same burdens, problems and suffers, you should ask yourself if you are in the proper position to judge or even criticize this person.
Also, it’s important to acknowledge the fact that others perceive their reality through biases, values and generalizations as well, which might highly influence their behavior.
6. Become aware of your emotional landscape
I’ve mentioned in the above that the ability to empathize with others largely depends on a person’s capacity to fully identify and understand his own feelings. Something many people are struggling with, as they give their best to numb themselves from unsolicited feelings by distracting themselves with work, TV or drugs and alcohol. Therefore, it can be tremendously helpful to keep an “emotions protocol” in order to discover the profundity of one’s emotional patterns, by keeping record of the various emotions we come across in our daily lives. This does not only encourage us to uncover the variety of our own emotions, but also helps us to acknowledge the fact that the emotional landscape of another person is similarly distinctive.
Writing an “emotions protocol” does neither require much effort nor time; simply write down – within the time span of five minutes – every emotion or feeling that you experienced during the day. For instance, if you experienced anger write down: “Sore anger: My colleague was promoted, instead of me.” Keep it plain and simple; the goal is to identify a huge variety of very different feelings and emotions.
7. Ask others about their perspective
The very last aspect on our list on how to develop skills in empathy describes a fantastic way that helps you to further increase and sharpen your empathic skills. Furthermore, it allows you to compare what you thought a person would feel like and how this person feels de facto. It’s as simple as the title of #7 reads; simply ask others about their perspective or even their feelings regarding a specific situation or occurrence. That way, you aren’t dependent on your sensitivity, but have a statement to compare your impressions with. Feel free to apply this technique wherever you feel fit, for instance, ask your colleagues about their opinion on the political development, and so on.
As closing remarks, let me point out that empathy is – luckily – a learned skill that can develop and grow through consistent practice. Therefore, if you are willing to increase your understanding of the behavior of others, it is never too late to learn it.