what is empathy?

What is Empathy? Looking inwardly to know others better.

Ever heard the phrase, do unto others as you would have them do unto you? It’s a principle taught to children in an effort to raise them as conscientious citizens. Whether the principle sticks or is reinforced is another matter. But it begs the question, do we? Do we treat others as we would wish to be treated? Do we consider their perspectives, their emotions, their worldview? Or do we impose what we know and believe upon them? So what is empathy then? If we are to be those conscientious people and live up to the Golden Rule stated above, we must discover how to treat others better. By being more empathetic.

In contrast to the Golden Rule, George Bernard Shaw says, “Do not do unto others as you would have them do unto you—they might have different tastes”. I understand why he would say this, but I think he misses the point. By treating others the way you would want to be, means practicing empathy. It means understanding another’s point of view, feeling what they feel, not standing in judgement, and supporting them without agenda. But also, it means understanding their tastes and accepting your differences. It’s about seeing what you have in common, not what sets you apart.

Looking inwardly

With this intention of becoming truly empathetic, we must first look to ourselves. If we are unwilling or lack the skills required to practice empathy, then it’s a futile task. It must of course be a conscious choice to live more empathetically and to seek to be better at it through practice. Seeking answers to the question what is empathy? and how it applies to you, will not only broaden the boundaries of your morality but improve the overall quality of your life. We have been brought up in a society that favours self-determination and a selfish attitude to life. However, new research shows that we are actually predisposed to a more empathetic nature. By thinking of others before yourself you create not only a happier and more fulfilling life for you but for those around you.

The Baggage Activity
what is empathy? empathy.
Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

Here’s an example of how a simple task can open our eyes to the feelings of others:

Karen, a middle school teacher, created an activity to teach her students how to better understand one another. In “The Baggage Activity” students wrote down some of the emotional weights they were carrying. The notes were shared anonymously, giving the students insight into each other’s hardships, often with a tearful response from their peers. The classroom has since been filled with a deeper sense of mutual respect among the young teens, who now have a greater sense of empathy for one another.

Taken from Our Daily Bread, written by Kirsten Holmberg

Such a simple activity! But immensely powerful in how we can transform our attitudes, behaviour, and relationships with people when we take the time to understand how they might be feeling. Transformation happens when we open ourselves up to see another’s experience. When we look beyond our own vision and encounter another’s pain, fear, or hopes we begin to notice things we would otherwise have missed. Our concerns for people’s welfare broadens, we begin to ask better questions and in humility value others above [our]selves (Philippians 2:3). Our focus shifts from a preoccupation with our own needs, to those of others, by becoming invested in their well-being. We happily seek ways to help others flourish rather than jealously protecting what we believe we need to thrive.

So what does empathy look like?

Roman Krznaric is an Australian public philosopher and a founding faculty member of The School of Life in London. He wrote an article in the Greater Good Magazine in 2012 entitled, Six Habits of Highly Empathic People.

Here’s what he says:

…empathy doesn’t stop developing in childhood. We can nurture its growth throughout our lives—and we can use it as a radical force for social transformation. Research in sociology, psychology, history—and my own studies of empathic personalities over the past 10 years—reveals how we can make empathy an attitude and a part of our daily lives, and thus improve the lives of everyone around us.

Let’s take a closer look at the ways we can become more empathetic.

Habit 1: Cultivate curiosity about strangers

Empathetic people are highly curious about the people they encounter daily. They are eager to chat with anyone they meet, not just to pass the time of day, but to genuinely make a connection and discover something unique about that person. The inquisitive nature we once had as children but is rarely found in adults is thriving within them. They find other people’s lives far more interesting than their own and are curious to learn about them.

When we engage with people out with our usual social circle we broaden our understanding of people and how many differing worldviews there are in comparison to our own. Curiosity in others is no brief chat about the weather or the football scores. It seeks to know a person, what is going on in another’s head, to discover what makes them tick. Crucially, however, it is not an interrogation. Oral historian and American author Studs Terkel said, Don’t be an examiner, be the interested inquirer.

Maybe it’s time to be more courageous! Challenge ourselves to be more curious, speak to people more readily, and have an outward-looking attitude.

Habit 2: Challenge prejudices and discover commonalities

what is empathy? empathy
Image by Sasin Tipchai from Pixabay

Everyone is different. And yet we have far more in common than what divides us. The way we are raised, the belief systems we adhere to, our moral codes, the assumptions we make about others, the collective labels we apply to people, are all barriers to understanding and appreciating individuality. We must challenge our own preconceptions in order to know a person fully and look for what unites rather than what divides.

I’m a avid watcher of cookery and travel programmes. Preferably combined. What I always notice, and the host always comments on, is the similarities between cultures. Finding a common ground, such as food, enables a level playing field for discussion and friendship to bloom. We may have varying beliefs and traditions, but we can learn from each other and respect our commonalities and well as our differences by being open-minded and willing to relate.

Habit 3: Try another person’s life

Experiential empathy is the practice of expanding your empathy by gaining direct experience of another person’s life. It has been described as more extreme and rewarding than most extreme sports! It also puts into practice the old Native American saying walk a mile in another man’s moccasins before you criticize him.

Roman Krznaric gives an example of someone who did just this. Notable British author George Orwell, the writer of 1984 and Animal Farm, decided to expand his experience after serving as a police officer in Burma in the 1920s. He was intent on discovering what life was really like for people who would be considered as living on the fringes of society. He wrote I wanted to submerge myself, to get right down among the oppressed.

And he did just that. Dressed in old, worn, and frayed clothing he lived among the homeless community in East London. The result was a drastic change in his views and opinions, beliefs, and relationships. He came to realise that homeless people cannot be pigeonholed as drunkards but made life-long friends among them. It was one of the greatest experiences of his life and he came to realise that empathy doesn’t just make you a good person, it is also good for you too.

Habit 4: Listen hard—and open up

When answering the question what is empathy? we must address the need for better communication. But not in the arbitrary sense of just talking to people, we must get better at being a good listener. It’s a vitally important characteristic of someone practicing empathy. When we are truly practicing empathy we listen hard to what people are actually saying, and not saying. It’s the ability and effort to see what isn’t necessarily being said out loud. To assess the emotional state of someone and grasp their immediate needs at that moment.

what is empathy? empathy.
Image by Sabine van Erp from Pixabay

For example, a friend may come to you and reveal some truly heart-breaking news. An empathetic listener wouldn’t just sit at a distance and condole with them, they would sense the brokenness and vulnerability of their friend, move closer to them, embrace them, sense they may need extra support to see them through. It’s seeing the bigger picture and knowing you can be a support to them in whatever way they need.

This kind of openness and trust doesn’t just happen on its own, however. It is a dual carriageway of dialogue between friends that creates an environment where depth and sincerity can be found. We need to be vulnerable and reveal our soft inner core to establish bonds where empathy can be reciprocated. This can be difficult for some for various reasons. But the rewards of friendships and relationships with others are all the rewards you need.

For more help and advice on relationships read my blog Close relationships and their incomparable value in our lives.

Habit 5: Inspire mass action and social change

Roman Krznaric writes, We typically assume empathy happens at the level of individuals, but HEPs [highly empathic people] understand that empathy can also be a mass phenomenon that brings about fundamental social change.

Throughout history, there have been times where the collective outrage over a situation has enacted local, national, and global change. Just think back to the 1800s when the Slave Trade was finally abolished, not by appealing to people’s religious or political views, but by appealing to their hearts. The abolitionists exposed the very real suffering of a people and challenged the morality surrounding it. That it should never have occurred and could not be allowed to continue.

Recently in time, we have seen the global reactions to natural disasters that have devastated communities around the world, be it earthquakes, tornadoes, tsunami, hurricanes, or flooding. Social media and the immediacy of our news outlets means we can respond quickly and send aid to people in dire need. Crowdfunding has become widespread for people who are seeking rare and expensive treatment, or for people just wanting to do a good turn by someone.

Empathic people will always find a way to show their care for their fellow, be it human, animal or plant. Empathy has no borders and no limits. We just have to open our eyes to the world around us and decide if we like what we see. If not, we can be the change we want to see. And it all starts with a little empathy.

Habit 6: Develop an ambitious imagination

what is empathy? empathy
Image by Senjin Pojskić from Pixabay

Being truly empathetic isn’t limited to people we know, those in obvious trouble, or those we deem to be on the fringes of society. Empathy requires us to broaden our view and listen to people with whom we might naturally clash. We are not all the same, each having different life experiences and knowledge and so cannot agree on all things. We can however try to understand one another by being open to hearing opposing views and come to manageable outcomes for both sides.

People on opposing sides of an argument can shout and scream at each other all day and break no new ground because they are not seeking to listen or understand the opposing view. When we sit down and talk and hear the reasons for and against, we can strategise and make better progress together for change. It leads to social tolerance, accepting the differences in others, and agreeing to live and let live.

The 20th century was the Age of Introspection, when self-help and therapy culture encouraged us to believe that the best way to understand who we are and how to live was to look inside ourselves. But it left us gazing at our own navels. The 21st century should become the Age of Empathy, when we discover ourselves not simply through self-reflection, but by becoming interested in the lives of others. We need empathy to create a new kind of revolution. Not an old-fashioned revolution built on new laws, institutions, or policies, but a radical revolution in human relationships.

Roman Krznaric, The Greater Good Magazine, 2012

What is empathy?

Empathy is the human need for deep connection. The understanding that we are connected by our experiences rather than divided. The knowledge that we require support and have the ability to give it freely. It’s at the core of our humanity, to love others, to show genuine care and interest, and enrich our lives in the process. Sometimes it takes courage, but most of the time we just need to open our eyes with love. Read my blog Do everything in love for more insight.

Click this link to further teaching on seeing things from other people’s perspectives.

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