Empathy is such a simple concept to understand, yet so difficult to practice! Kids are taught about it. The word itself is lazily thrown around, assuming everyone knows how to empathize, that it’s something we’re naturally good at. Well we’re not! Even if we care enough to look outside our own busy lives to try and want to empathize with someone, it’s too easy to fall into the trap of making judgments or believing we know everything about another person’s situation. Empathy is especially tough because it requires us to not only understand a different person, but also to set aside our own biases and keep an open mind, all of which are notoriously difficult things to do.
After having gone through a rough patch involving several personal struggles over the last two years, and distinctly feeling that nobody understood my situation, I’ve realized an important lesson. Empathy is defined as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person”, and that is really the key – understanding feelings – as opposed to just understanding the problem at hand or trying to find a solution. The best way to do it is simpler than you can imagine, you just have to ask! Think about it, how many people have asked you in the last few days how you feel? Have you asked anyone? We all struggle with the stresses of modern life, but rarely ask each other how we feel. To add to it, we immediately make up our minds about others, and this only blocks out further communication.
Remembering to focus on how someone is feeling rather than what they’re talking about, or how they’re behaving, helps me better understand and help people. This is especially valuable while dealing with conflicts – someone might be upset at you but if you understood how they felt, your opinion and even reaction might change. If a friend berated you for being late, you might be upset because she’s being too touchy. But if you knew that she lost her job that day and is feeling down, not only are you likely to let it go, but might also alter your behavior and try to make her feel better instead of getting upset yourself. For someone like me who usually tends to get upset quickly, this is a VERY useful tool.
People who empathize with others are more likable and less likely to pick up extended conflicts. I believe lack of empathy is a prime ingredient in a lot of the hatred and stereotyping that is perpetrated today. Everyone conveniently judges others from their own safe points of view. I’m guilty too, but have been trying hard to correct it. While empathy is not the solution to every problem in the world, it can certainly alleviate some!
To summarize, the only takeaway from this post is to always keep your mind open for what the other person is feeling. If you can’t figure it out, remember to ask! People can be pleasantly surprised when you do.- nRT