Have you ever been in a situation where you just feel like someone doesn’t get you? Maybe it is a boss who doesn’t understand your responsibilities to your family, or a single friend who doesn’t understand your relationship struggles. These feelings of being misunderstood can easily lead to resentment, whether intentional or not. Stop for a second, and think about which side of that coin you could be on. For every person that you think doesn’t get you – there could be a person that wants to be understood by you. This is a fun little phenomenon called the “perspective gap”, and bridging it is a key component to real emotional intelligence.
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In 2013, Adam Grant wrote a book called Give and Take, in Which he addressed the idea of a “perspective gap”. According to Grant, “When we’re not experiencing a psychologically or physically intense state, we dramatically underestimate how much it will affect us. For instance, evidence shows that physicians consistently think their patients are feeling less pain than they actually are. Without being in a state of pain themselves, physicians can’t fully realize what it’s like to be in that state.”
To test the theory of the perspective gap, Dr. Loran Nordgren conducted a study at Northwestern University. Participants were asked to guess how painful it would be to spend 5 hours in a freezing room. One group of participants made their predictions with their arm immersed in warm water while another group made theirs with an arm dipped in ice water. Obviously, the people with their arms in the ice water predicted a much higher level of discomfort from being stuck in a freezing room. Yet a third group dipped their arms in ice water and then waited 10 minutes before making their predictions of the discomfort of being locked in a freezing room. What was really interesting was that this third groups answer’s were almost the same as the people who answered the pain predictions while having their arms dipped in warm water.
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Basically, when people weren’t confronted with the discomfort directly they didn’t factor it into their answers, even though they had experienced the same discomfort as the first group. I mention this experiment when talking about the perception gap because I think it is a beautiful metaphor for life.Sometimes we don’t realize the struggles of others around us, even if they are struggles we have been through ourselves. This gives the other person the notion that we don’t understand them. Imagine having your arm in cold water and hearing someone tell you that being in a freezing room “wouldn’t be so bad”, even though their arm was in that same water 10 minutes ago.
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So, what bridges the perception gap? In a word: empathy.
As simple of an answer as that is, empathy is not just a casual word. A lot of people get empathy and sympathy confused. Sympathy is understanding someone else’s emotions. Empathy is actually FEELING the emotion of others. It’s the difference of knowing that someone is sad and understanding why they are sad, versus actually experiencing sadness when someone around you is upset. Empathy requires not only experience but a personal understanding of your own emotions. How can you empathize with an emotion you don’t understand yourself.
Now, I am not saying that sympathy isn’t important, it really is. That being said, there is a difference in understanding that someone is walking down a rough road, and walking that same road with them. Take the time to understand the struggles of the people around you as they apply to your own life. This connection that you make with people around you that are going through struggles that you, yourself, have already been through is one that works both ways.