Empathy is the ability to feel and emotionally understand what another person is experiencing and going through.
Let’s define empathy
A simpler definition of empathy is having the ability to share another person’s feelings. This trait allows people to connect on more meaningful levels so that people feel understood and respected.
The cliche expression of ‘walking in someone else’s shoes,’ is a good way to begin to understand what empathy is. If we truly feel empathy, we are able to feel the emotional sensations of another person’s experience on a deeper level. This feeling helps us to establish deeper and stronger interpersonal connections and interact with people more genuinely.
People often think that sympathy and empathy are one and the same, but the key difference is that sympathy is having pity for another person’s hardships, while empathy is actually sharing the feeling of joy or pain that the other person is experiencing. Empathy comes easy for some, while others don’t readily experience empathy.
SOMETIMES SYMPATHY CAN TRANSITION INTO EMPATHY AS A PERSON GAINS MORE LIFE EXPERIENCES AND GAINS NEW PERSPECTIVE.
An example is shown below.
A co-worker in an office shared a story with her fellow workers that her only child was born with a rare genetic condition that caused her face to appear swollen and bruised. The mother of the child expressed that she felt discomfort because people in shops would wrongly assume that the facial anomalies were the result of abuse. She never got to hear the words, “Oh, what a cute baby,” but even though she was saddened by that, her experience of motherhood was a profound learning experience. One co-worker sympathized with this story and felt bad for her, but years later, when she became a mother herself, she could finally empathize with how difficult this experience must have been for the other mother, and could often be brought to tears recalling the story. She had transitioned from sympathetic to empathetic.
Lack of Empathy is Working Against You!
We have all heard of mentally ill and psychopathic individuals that have a complete lack of empathy and are simply not able to connect at all with the emotions of others, but what about those that are capable of empathy, but aren’t naturally inclined to consider other people’s feelings?
Having empathy is a foundational social skill that is beneficial to a number of situations in life and business. If someone has difficulties empathizing with others, they can easily come across as insensitive or cold. People that show a flat affect and lack of empathy in response to other people’s joy or misfortune are often judged with contempt because they haven’t responded appropriately to the social situation at hand.
What would we think if someone was upset over the death of their dog and another person responded, “Why are you so upset about it? It’s a part of life and you know that dogs don’t have very long lifespans.”
The majority of people would consider that response insensitive to the other’s feelings and would find this distasteful and rude. Perhaps the response is the result of having a more logical and detached personality, and the person that appears rude really thinks this way and would not be so deeply emotionally affected by the death of a dog. Expressing their opinions and their inability to empathize with this situation works against them because the statements make them appear callous.
It is beneficial to read social cues correctly and to develop empathy so that we do not appear unsympathetic and we can manage social situations better. On the whole, having difficulties empathizing can have a negative impact in both our personal and career lives.
Importance and Benefits of Developing Empathy in Your Life
Empathy is not only important for social acceptance, it is also beneficial for developing overall emotional and physical health. It’s a skill at the root of pro-social behavior; actions that are involved in developing close relationships, tight friendships and strong communities. Understanding others and being understood by others is a way to validate the shared experiences between people, causing people to feel more connected and to work better together to reach mutual goals, whether in life or work.
Children, by nature, are inclined towards empathy, and when those traits are fostered through effective parenting, they generally develop into empathetic adults that are regarded as trustworthy and caring. They may develop closer bonds between people and their relationships may be more satisfying because they feel more connected to the people they interact with.
It’s easy to see that one would want to have a partner or a friend that really understands them. But what about an empathetic doctor? It is equally important that the people that provide us medical care in some of our most trying times really understand both the physical and emotional strain that the illness causes us and our family. The term bedside manner is actually a way to explain to other people whether a doctor is able to empathize or not. One that has a positive bedside manner is both logically assessing the health situation and finding an understanding of what the patient is feeling on an emotional level.
Practical Steps that You Should Start Doing to Build Empathy
So how can we all work on developing our empathy?
Empathy is a skill that can be practiced and improved, particularly if one is not inclined toward natural feelings of empathy as a result of personality. Establish an empathy definition that helps exemplify the importance of the skill and accept that when working on developing the skill, it might feel uncomfortable at first. It’s quite normal to experience discomfort before gaining these new skills.
Some basic skills to start with are to listen to other people when they are talking and to consider their point of view and perspective. Without responding, think about the different point of view they are expressing and try to respect it. Remember that everyone is different and that it’s alright to be different.
Understand that despite people having individual motivations, everyone also shares some basic needs and motivations, such as the need to feel respected and heard, to feel important and valued by family and friends, and to be understood and supported when they are experiencing both triumphs and tribulations. Practicing empathy will enhance interpersonal relationships and overall health.
Along with respecting natural differences between people and their perspectives and understanding shared motivations and commonalities between individuals, it is important to challenge your prejudices. Making assumptions about groups of people and practicing collective labeling of individuals hinders the potential to empathize with people when, in fact, the preconceived opinion is not based on an actual experience with the individual or the group of individuals. If you begin to analyze prejudices that you have and look beyond the label to the unique qualities of the individuals, you will start to see that these assumptions are simply not supported by facts. You will not only understand others better, but you might even begin to empathize with what it might be like to wear a particular societal label when an individual feels that it simply doesn’t fit them.
Outreach is another practical approach to begin developing the necessary skills needed for empathy. Social movements and change throughout the years have often been the result of highly empathic people, those that can feel and connect on a deeper level with groups of people that are being persecuted and marginalized. But, while empathizing on a large scale often brings great change to the world, meaningful change doesn’t have to be on a large scale.
There is a growing social media movement calling for people to ‘do something for nothing’, which began as a small movement on the streets of London when a trained hairdresser began offering free haircuts to homeless individuals that found themselves living out on the street for a multitude of reasons, ranging from unemployment to addiction. This idea of helping others with a skill you already have is a really great method to employ to practice developing empathy.
Many of the homeless that had gotten a free cut expressed both feeling renewed and feeling less invisible and more connected. A simple act of kindness and an offering of your time for someone else can benefit the giver as much as the receiver. Helping others has a way of connecting with the needs of all individuals and can help to draw out feelings of empathy in those with less natural empathic inclination.
Thanks to Yourzengrowth for this article.