Something is amiss in our discussion of empathy. I came to this conclusion after a brief search through recent news articles yielded the following headlines: College students have less empathy than past generations, too much testosterone will lower empathy, empathy is considered to be a cause of yawning, and my favorite newsflash, chickens are capable of empathy too!
While this might be very bad news for college-going chickens who suffer from low testosterone and fatigue, it doesn't do much for our public discussion of empathy either. The main problem is we've been asking all the wrong questions.
Whether a given person or group exhibits more or less empathy than another is not a relevant question to begin with. What matters is not whether we have empathy, but whether we know how to have empathy-whether we can access feelings of empathy when we want to do so.
Empathy means being able to step into someone else's shoes and then step out of them again. What happens when we inhabit their shoes is supposed to give us an understanding of their experience, their feelings and their point of view.
But what techniques can we use to get in touch with feelings of empathy and when should we put these tools to use?
How to Experience Empathy
Experiencing empathy requires a Jedi mind trick of sorts albeit one we do to our own minds. It involves directing our awareness to a place our mind does not go of its own accord-to what it feels like to be another person-lingering there for a moment so we register the emotional and cognitive landscape, and then returning to our own reality.
Let's use the following example. We call our bank's customer hotline to dispute a late fee. We're annoyed about the situation but having read The Squeaky Wheel we know that if we want to be effective and get the fee waved, we must manage our anger. Since empathy is a way to manage our emotions in complaining situations, we decide to test our empathy and give it a try.
We could consider how it might feel to be the representative by thinking of how we feel in our own jobs-but that would be misleading. We have to taste the other person's world and register their landscape which means we must take the time to paint that landscape as fully as we can.
In this case, we should imagine what it is like to sit in a small cubicle all day facing a computer that dictates to us almost everything we do and say. We have to imagine we are low salaried employees, single parents or students working to pay for school. We have to envision spending our days dealing with frustrated and angry customers, getting yelled at regularly, called horrible names and not being able to respond in kind for fear of losing our jobs.
And then, even before our heart rate slows down from the last abusive caller-another call comes in, a customer complaining about a computer generated late fee-us.
What the Empathy Exercise Can Teach Us
Doing the empathy exercise would probably make us realize that being kind and respectful when presenting our problem, might elicit feelings of relief and gratitude in the representative who was probably bracing for another angry caller. This in turn might make them feel more motivated to help us resolve our issue so they go the extra mile or make special efforts on our behalf.
Without the full empathy exercise, it would not have occurred to us that a civil and kind manner might elicit relief and gratitude from the bank's representative as we would have assumed they should do their job regardless.
Indeed, insight is the true hallmark of empathy. The power of true empathy is its ability to give us a fresh understanding of the other person's emotions and thoughts to illuminate an aspect of their experience that would not have been apparent to us had we not stepped into their shoes.
When We Should Use Empathy
Once we have gained practice in using the empathy exercise we could apply it in a variety of situations. Here are just a few of many possible scenarios:
1. Whenever we seek to understand someone better.
2. When we find ourselves arguing unproductively with a spouse or a significant other.
3. When we have trouble connecting emotionally to the plight of a loved one.
4. When we want to calm our tempers and manage our emotions.
5. When figuring out how best to complain effectively.
Empathy comes more naturally to some than it does to others. However, by taking time to truly paint a picture of what it is like for the other person and imagine ourselves in their place, we will gain valuable insights and forge deeper connections to those around us.
View my short and quite personal TEDx talk about Psychological Health here:
For more about emotional validation and empathy check out: Emotional First Aid: Healing Rejection, Guilt, Failure, and Other Everyday Hurts (Plume, 2014).
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Copyright 2011 Guy Winch
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