If you think you’re hearing the word “empathy” everywhere, you’re right. It’s now on the tongue’s of everyone from a student to a teacher, from a scientist to a world leader, education experts and political activists. But there is a very important question that only few people ask: How can I expand my own empathic potential? According to new research, it’s a habit we can cultivate to improve the quality of our own lives and not just extending the boundaries of our moral universe.
But what exactly is empathy? The dictionary defines “Empathy” as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. It’s the ability to step into the shoes of another person, aiming to understand their feelings and perspectives, and to use that understanding to guide our actions. This attribute itself makes it different from kindness or pity. And don’t confuse it with the Golden Rule, as George Bernard Shaw pointed out, “Do not do unto others as you would have them do unto you—they might have different tastes.” Empathy is about discovering those tastes.
Empathy is the ability to hear out others while remaining calm and interrupting in between, which gives us a better sense of understanding of the situation and to act accordingly. According to me the below are the Habits of Highly Empathic People (HEP):
Highly empathic people (HEPs) have an insatiable curiosity about strangers. They will talk to the person sitting next to them on the bus or in a park or anywhere without any inhibition, having retained that natural inquisitiveness we all had as children. Although the society around us is so good at beating this trait out of us, HEPs retain them throughout their lives. They find talking with other people more interesting than just raining quiet but in no way are out to interrogate them.
Curiosity like above expands our empathy, horizon and thinking when we talk to people outside our usual social circle, encountering lives and world views very different from our own.
Cultivating curiosity requires more than having a brief chat about the weather or for that matter anything in general. Crucially, it tries to understand the world inside the head of the other person. We are confronted by strangers every day, like the taxi driver you encounter on your way to work or the new employee at work who sits alone. Set yourself the challenge of having a conversation with one stranger every week. All it requires is courage.
Challenge prejudices and discover commonalities
We all have assumptions about others and use collective labels—e.g., “Biased boss,” “Blue-eyed staff,” “welfare rm”—that prevent us from appreciating their individuality. HEPs challenge their own preconceptions and prejudices by searching for what they share with people rather than what divides them.
Try another person’s shoes
So you think bungee jumping, skydiving and hang-gliding are extreme sports? Then you need to try experiential empathy, the most challenging—and potentially rewarding—of them all. HEPs expand their empathy by gaining direct experience of other people’s lives, putting into practice the proverb, “Walk a mile in another man’s shoes before you criticize him.” HEPs have the ability to “Walk the Talk”.
Listen hard and let’s open up
There are two traits required for being an empathic conversationalist. One is to master the art of radical listening. What is important is our ability to be present to what’s really going on within—to the unique feelings and needs a person is experiencing in that very moment. HEPs listen hard to others and do all they can to grasp their emotional state and needs, whether it is a friend who has just been diagnosed with cancer or a spouse who is upset at them for working late yet again. But listening is never enough. The second trait is to make ourselves vulnerable. Removing our false face masks and revealing our feelings to someone is vital for creating a strong empathic bond. Empathy is a two-way street that, at its best, is built upon mutual understanding—an exchange of our most important beliefs and experiences.
Inspire a social change through mass action
We typically assume empathy happens at the level of individuals, but HEPs understand that empathy can also be a mass phenomenon that brings about fundamental social change. This is what great leaders do as they use their empathic individuality to create a mass phenomenon like the likes of Mahatma Gandhi.
Develop an ambitious imagination
Another trait of HEPs is that they do far more than empathize with the usual suspects. We tend to believe empathy should be reserved for those living on the social margins or who are suffering. This is necessary, but it is hardly enough. We also need to empathize with people whose beliefs we don’t share or who may be “enemies” in some way.
Why Is Empathy so Important
Empathy is important because it helps us understand how others are feeling so we can respond appropriately to the situation. People who are good at reading others emotions, are also very effective in using the skills for the betterment of the relationship of the person. Without empathy, people tend to go about life as it happens without considering how other people feel or what they may be thinking. Each of us has differing perspectives. We all experience moods, pain and hurt, joy and sadness. And we are so limited when we only see our own perspective. Without taking a moment to assess another, it is easy to make assumptions and jump to conclusions. This often leads to misunderstandings, bad feelings, conflict or poor morale when people do not feel they are heard or understood.
The Power of Empathy
When you use empathy to understand why someone is angry, when a child is acting out or why someone is behaving differently that normal, for instance, your friend is more aggressive than before or the child is very cranky, you might learn that something happened at home or anyplace else that is upsetting them. Instead of reacting to the emotions of another or becoming defensive, you can ask questions about their behavior or emotional state and let them open up slowly without pushing. There still may need to be discipline or consequences to their behavior, but by using empathy first, the person feels valued and heard and therefore, will more easily accept responsibility for their actions. Empathy is the missing link in families, in our schools, and in our workplaces. As we grow up, kids can often be mean to each other. If we start teaching empathy in schools and colleges, then perhaps we would grow up being more loving and tolerant and understanding of each other.
Can we all Start being more reasonable, good listeners and cultivate Empathy within ourselves. This will not only help us individually but will help the people around us, the society and the world as a whole. Being considerate of people around us will only bring a smile, more joy and happiness in our lives and make the world a better place to live in. Amen!!