Empathy is a habit we should all cultivate.
Have you ever been told that you should try putting yourself in another person’s shoes? Few of us fully understand that phrase because few of us understand what empathy really means.
Empathy is the ability to understand the emotions, perspectives and views of another person. Empathy is about understanding and feeling what someone else is feeling without holding to it… It teaches us to respond instead of react. Empathy gives us security in feeling. It creates a bond between people and allows for a new kind of connection to form.
Empathy creates a new realm of understanding within the human experience. Suddenly we are not closed off to the suffering of the world but rather we feel a piece of it. If mastered, we can learn how to feel without attachment and in that we can learn how to truly be there for one another.
Sometimes we are so unknowingly self-absorbed that we often forget that we are just like our family, friends, co-workers and acquaintances – meaning they all feel too.
The world we live in has created a “dog eat dog” society and its often quite hard to look in the mirror and see the truth. We are consumed with surving and in that, we sometimes forget to stop and listen.
For some, the hardest thing to do in a world that just doesn’t stop is to stop, listen and feel – truly feel. We get so caught up we forget to ask our family and peers how they are really doing and actually mean it. With this, one can feel quite lonely in a world of almost 9 billion people.
A friend once told me, “If you ever want to try and cultivate empathy, you must learn to listen with an open heart and without the intention of replying or reacting.” I thought about what she had said and realized, often when someone tried to share an experience with me I would often respond back with a similar experience I had experienced – somehow relating their story back to me. This is a classic trait of narcissism, which we wont get into in this article. This happens quite often in conversations all over the world, between people of all races and culture. Our innate desire to want to impress those around us and have constant gratification is one of the reasons we sometimes fall short.
After being told about empathy and its power to transform the relationships within my life I decided to give it a go.
Everytime I saw someone I knew and we got into a conversation I would only ask questions like, “How have you been?”, “Hows that new job of yours going?” etc – making sure to listen and remember their answers so that the next time we exchanged words I could add a sense of “Wow, they actually listened and remembered our last conversation.” It was a weird feeling but I enjoyed it, it was different, the conversation went on for a lot longer than usual and I got to learn something new each time. I then decided that from that moment on I will make it my duty to remember that we are all the same and we all deserve to be heard, understood and respected for our life experience and feelings.
According to an article posted on Uplift, there are six ways to cultivate empathy within your daily life:
1. Be curious.
– Be curious about other people’s emotions and life experiences and try be genuinely interested in their story.
2. Learn how to challenge prejudices while discovering commonalities.
– Many of us were taught how to judge before we were taught how to understand. We were taught labels and how to put people into a boxes and this creates prejudices. Highly empathic people look for common ground and things that they share with another, rather than things that separate them
3. Walk a mile in another man’s shoes.
– If you find yourself wondering what it is like living in the poor, less fortunate social margin, do what George Orwell did back in 1920. When he returned to Britain, he became determined to discover what it was like living in the less fortunate parts of Britain. He wrote, “I wanted to submerge myself, to get right down among the oppressed.” So he did just that and documented it in his book “Down and Out in Paris and London” What he discovered was that the ‘drunken scoundrels’ were not scoundrels at all. In fact, he created friendships with these “scoundrels”. His time among them changed his view on inequality and human nature.
4. Listen attentively and be present.
– Being there for someone requires a genuine sense of presence. When we listen, we must listen with an open heart. We must have patience and, when the time is right; open up in response to whoever you are in conversation with. Make it clear that you understand and have felt that feeling before, therefore you can relate. Communication is key and empathy is a two way street. An exchange of energy. Being in the now creates a trust and understanding bond. However, you must want to listen and understand before you can be present.
5. Using empathy to inspire max action and social change.
– According to the Uplift article mentioned above, highly empathic people are aware of something most of us aren’t. Empathy, if cultivated on a global scale has the power to change the world and bring peace through understanding and acceptance.
A journalist from the 18th and 19th century who writes about that abolition of slavery reminds us that, “The abolitionists placed their hope not in sacred texts, but in human empathy.” They did all they could to try make people understand the real suffering endured on a plantation or slave ship. It was the empathy of Abraham Lincoln and all his followers that in the end, abolished slavery. Just as the international trade union movement was started due to the empathy felt for fellow industrial workers with whom they shared exploitation with. Another example is the TRC – which was a truth and reconciliation council formed after the South African apartheid war. The aim of this council was to allow the family members of the deceased to hear from the people who killed their loved ones exactly what they felt after committing those deeds – this gave some closure to all those involved and allowed some to forgive.
6. Be ready to challenge and empathize with things that contradict your beliefs.
– We should learn to be empathic towards the beliefs that we don’t share or to people we may not even like. In order to be a truly cultivate empathy you must remain detached from the situation and be aware of the feelings and notions of that moment. Try understanding why the person feels what they are feeling and what drives their actions. This puts you in the observer position and this is a great place to be when wanting to be present and aware
To conclude this article I would like to share a vision that the ‘Father of social entrepreneurship’, Bill Drayton had about our future. He believed that in an age of rapid technological development the key to business survival is mastering empathy. He believed that business owners should empathize with each other because it creates trust and teamwork.
According to Bill, the 20th century was about introspection and that it has caused a selfish streak in mankind. He says, “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.” And in the words of George Orwell, “Empathy doesn’t just make you good—it’s good for you, too.”