Empathy is the ability to project yourself into the personalities or situations of others for the purpose of better understanding them. You see the world through another’s eyes. Or, as Joe South famously sang in 1969, “you walk a mile in my shoes.”
Empathy subtly differs from its emotional cousins — sympathy and pity. Sympathy is the bond experienced as the result of a shared emotion or event. Pity is what you feel when you want to help individuals because they’re unable to manage on their own.
But empathy takes you to another’s inner workings. You truly grasp what makes them tick. Even if you don’t agree with what they say, you get the essence of who they are.
Humans have been contemplating empathy since time began. Roman statesman Marcus Aurelius wrote, “Whenever you are about to find fault in someone, ask yourself the following question: What fault of mine most nearly resembles the one I am about to criticize?” Theodore Roosevelt said, “No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.”
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Empathy is essential in all human interactions. Marriages flourish when couples realize they both want to be respected and adored. Businesses are more successful when CEOs consider employees’ opinions and needs in their decisions. World leaders avoid pointless and costly conflicts if they don’t make assumptions about other countries’ motives or refuse to acknowledge their fundamental needs.
But empathy can be elusive. All parties must be willing to set aside rank or prejudices to communicate as equals. This doesn’t mean they have the same title in the company or role in the family. Rather, they’re united by their joint humanity and their desire to solve a shared problem.
Some folks are inherently empathic. They read social cues with ease. Others struggle when it comes to interpreting feelings. Still, there’s plenty we can do to improve our empathy and understand the people in our lives.
Linda Lewis Griffith is a local marriage and family therapist. For information or to contact her, visit lindalewisgriffith.com.
How to become more empathetic:
▪ Check your beliefs at the door. Now is not the time to change anyone’s opinions. The purpose is to improve your relationship and acceptance.
▪ Listen. Tune in carefully to the content, tone and emotions of their words. Avoid jumping in with your observations. Never interrupt.
▪ Identify a few key themes. Is the speaker expressing sadness? Fear? Uncertainty? Keep those themes front and center in your mind.
▪ Tap into a similar situation. Recall how you felt at that time. Even if the exact circumstances vary, your emotions and experience will overlap.
▪ Express phrases and gestures of understanding. Nod. Lean in toward the speakers. Say, “I get it.” Show facial expressions that support what’s being said.
▪ Confirm your observations. Keep statements brief and focused on the discussion. Use words such as, “It seems you want this. Is that correct?”
▪ Ask for input. It’s okay if you’re unclear. Simply request more information: “I still don’t understand the reason you did that. Can you help me get a better picture?”
▪ Express gratitude. Say “Thank you” at the end of your discussion. Let everyone know you appreciated their efforts and trust.
▪ Accept disagreement. You needn’t be in accord on all issues. Your dialogue, respect and good intentions may be enough. Hopefully, communication will continue in the future.