Developing the undervalued art of true empathy
“Whenever you feel like criticizing any one...just remember that all the people in this world haven't had the advantages that you've had.” ― F. Scott Fitzgerald
Yes, I admit that the latest movie with Leonardo Di Caprio capturing Fitzgerald’s Gatsby to his hedonistic T drew me straight to this quote.
Yet, the words ring with truth and compassion. They also show us that empathy, the art of taking on the perceptions of others can be quite a difficult one to master. Master it we must, to fight negative emotions with a bit of positivity.
We can never fully appreciate the viewpoint of the other but there are things we can do to cultivate more understanding within and among us. Let me explain, with the help of a few haiku embedded in pictures of the Aster flower, a lasting symbol of empathy.
Wikipedia defines empathy is defined as the “capacity to recognize emotions that are experienced by another sentinent or fictional being.” Without the wordiness, what this simply means is to be able to feel what another person feels and walk in their shoes for a bit.
Empathy can be viewed in several ways. It can be seen as removing any emotional boundary between oneself and another. It represents the care and concern that we have for others or the experience of emotions that match another’s as much as possible, if not perfectly.
Though the concepts behind the words are related, empathy is NOT sympathy. Sympathy merely says, “I’m sorry for you,” with pity but perhaps no understanding or appreciation of the other party’s situation. Empathy takes things up a notch with the added element of being able to perceive, and thus comprehend, another party’s position.
Because of its susceptibility to broad definitions, it is hard to put a finger on the meaning of empathy. One thing we know is the need for its cultivation and that developing it makes us better people who can contribute little, but significant things in the course of daily living.
Why we should develop empathy
Empathy can be a powerful perception and life-changing emotion. The things we see, or wish to see, are a result of the empathetic choices we make. We can choose to see helping an old lady across the road as being a nuisance or an opportunity to make a small, meaningful, individual difference. There are no prizes for concluding that the first contributes to negative cynicism while the second enables us to be positive, others-oriented individuals.
Before saying that this is sentimental, there are a few practical reasons why we should develop the skill of the walk in another’s shoes.
Empathy enables effective communication.
We can never do this fully, but when we are able to at least try to see things from another person’s viewpoint, in engenders better communication. Empathy greatly increases a person’s ability to appreciate needs which translates to better relationships both at home and in the workplace. The recognition of needs dissolves negative feelings of anger, hurt or dissatisfaction and allows all parties to willingly facilitate each other’s needs.
Empathy enables us to think out of the box.
Our perspectives of the world broaden with a little bit of empathy. With broader perceptions comes an increase in relationship skills and an added bonus - the ability to think creatively, with better ideas.
A classic example of this is the case of writing. We become better fiction writers and mould well- rounded, human characters when we can develop their spherical perspectives.
Empathy reduces stress.
A little empathy naturally begets other nurturing, positive emotions like compassion. It also develops our self-confidence. Think of the last time we heard someone say to us “Thanks, you really understood what I wanted to say.” Didn’t those words leave a sense of satisfaction and raise a little positive self-esteem?
Empathy helps us to become effective listeners.
Empathy is a critical component of effective listening. We are always put off when we try to tell others what we think or feel about issues, only to be regarded with little, or any, support, understanding or worse - back channel support because the person was shutting us out and not listening.
We may, unconsciously give others this treatment. If we wish to be better listeners, a little empathy makes a lot of difference.
Empathy enables us to respond to and resolve conflicts.
What an angry party actually feels is anxious for others to see things his way for a bit. And conflicts happen when both parties cannot, or refuse to, see things in other ways but their own.
This is when the voice of empathy steps in to remind conflicting parties to step back and see things from the other side for a change. When both are able to do this and say “I am finally able to understand why...” it can help to break tension.
How can we develop true empathy?
True empathy can never fully be experienced unless you really have been in situations that mirror the other party’s. But this does not mean that we are not able to hone the skill of true listening and understanding.
Use your imagination.
If you feel annoyed or find it impossible to understand another person’s behavior or needs, take the time to really imagine what you would do if you were in the situation, especially regarding the pain or loss that is being experienced.
Often, that helps us to come to the conclusion that if you were wearing the other party’s clothes, you might wear them the same way as he does.
This enlarges our capacity to love others. The answer to the question “What about me?” is already prepared. Cultivating relationships by practicing a little empathy helps to break down defenses, both on your part and on the part of the person with whom you might have a wounded relationship.
From experience as a teacher, I realize that this is often the case with teens. They behave derisively or offensively sometimes out of the need to be understood. Showing them with a bit of firmness that you are prepared to see things their way makes them less defensive and creates inroads to better communication.
Put away assumptions and beliefs.
This can be a little difficult to accomplish. We often approach others with pre-conceived judgements of them, often because of our own experiences, some of which could have been harsh.
The other party might be behaving for reasons other than what we think drives them. So to remove opportunity for misunderstanding and to create more empathy, it is a must to try to put already instilled ideas away.
Try to identify with the other party.
Identify situations when you have been in a similar position. It can establish a little understanding of the other person’s needs.
Gain objective perspective.
This is important so that we do not become emotionally enmeshed with a situation. The irony is that we should detach in order to appreciate the person’s pain. Being too drawn into a situation may not allow you to understand fully his or her feelings because you are too emotionally involved. Separateness gives the advantage of objective perspective.
Practice healing, forgiveness and prayer.
Hurt is a truly effective pair of sunglasses. It darkens so much that will jump in shock or anger when a person annoys or upsets us. We can easily forget to take the other party’s needs into account.
Physician, heal thyself - before we can help others, we have to heal and remove the anger that can cloud our perspectives.
Six habits of highly empathetic people
How do people who have high levels of understanding and thus lots of friends behave?What are some of the common traits they share? Knowing them might help us to develop our own interpersonal skills too.
They are curious.
Without knowing for the sake of pure socializing or cultivating insincere gossip fodder, highly empathetic people are genuinely curious about others. They really want to know about others or their situations so that they can better help. Empathetic people truly try to understand the world of the other person.
They find commonalities.
Empathetic people always find common ground with others. They always see outlets for conversation and opportunities to develop rapport with others.
They experience another’s life.
Few of us can really get up the gumption to do this. But truly empathetic people live life the way of others, at least for a time, in order to understand them.Animal Farm author George Orwell was a good example of this. After several years as a colonial officer in Burma, he wanted to gain a better understanding of the lives of the truly oppressed. So he lived in the streets of East London with those traditionally considered to be the dregs of society - beggars and vagabonds. Doing so enabled him to totally restructure his priorities and relationships.
Empathetic people truly listen.
Empathetic people are attuned to the feelings of others as they listen to them. They practice radical listening and are present, though detached, to whatever is going on within.
They are also willing to break their own defenses in order to form relationship bonds. Think of someone who has told you “I’ve had this happen to me before too.”
Empathetic people are inspiring.
Empathetic people inspire others to be empathetic too. They discourage prejudice, judgement and other forms of emotional negativity. They encourage others to see things from another view rather than judge.
They have good imaginations.
When they cannot fully be in the position to appreciate the feelings of others, empathetic people use their imagination to help them see how they would behave if wearing the other party’s shoes.
This holds true with people whose beliefs we do not share. While we may disagree with them, we can see what drives them to behave in certain ways. It is the key to social tolerance.
The Aster, a symbol of empathy
The enchanting beauty and lush texture of the aster creates magical feelings when it is viewed. Previously thought of as being able to ward off evil, the Aster’s name is derived from the Greek word ‘star.’ Today, it is widely regarded as a symbol of love, patience and of course, empathy.
There are five haiku on empathy written on photos of the aster that I have interspersed in various parts of the article. For more on the writing of haiku, do visit Daisy Mariposa's well-defined examples in her article, Poetry Forms. Do enjoy them.
Empathy is an underrated but necessary skill. To develop it, one must be willing to make the move to really BE in the other person’s shoes, as least figuratively.
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