I saw six people huddled on the sidewalk in front of me; through their legs I saw what looked like a body on the ground. I rushed over to see what was going on. I saw a man with a bloody gash on his head; he appeared to be unconscious. I pushed through and started checking him out using my Boy Scout First-Aid training. His clothes were filthy and tattered, and he smelled bad, but a quick examination showed that his wound was not very deep.
I was a nineteen year old college kid, and had just moved into my first apartment. I was walking to get acquainted with the neighborhood, when I found the injured man. “What happened?” I asked the crowd.
“He’s a drunk; I’m calling the police!” responded one man.
I couldn’t believe the callous response. “This man is hurt,” I cried. He doesn’t need the police - he needs help!”
I roused the man and got him to his feet. “Come on Mister, let me take you home.”
I asked him where he lived. He grunted and pointed down the block, so I took his arm and we started walking. I gave a dirty look to the guy who wanted to call the police. I was clueless that my ward might be homeless.
At each intersection, I asked him which way to go, but he always pointed straight ahead. In the middle of the third block he veered off the sidewalk and into the street where he stopped. Then to my shock, while I was holding him up, he unzipped his fly and began urinating in the middle of the road. I was mortified. I looked around; hoping the guy up the street had not called the police. At that moment, I was glad that none of my neighbors knew me yet.
When he finished, we walked another block. The street ended at a park. I asked the man which way to turn. Suddenly, he developed a burst of energy, broke free from my grasp, ran deep into the park, and disappeared into the trees. I stood there staring after him feeling stupid.
A few years later, I moved to New York City. It was my second week in the Big Apple when I stopped my car at a red light. A man holding a gas can walked up to my window and said, “I live out on Long Island and ran out of gas, but I left my wallet at the house.” He held the can up expectantly and said, “A gallon will get me home.”
I was very intimidated by the size and congestion of New York; I knew I would hate to be stuck there without my wallet. I handed him two dollars. Two days later, I pulled up to a red light at a different intersection when the same man came up to me with the same story. I was furious.
After experiencing a few more incidences like these, my empathy was running on empty. Whatever natural compassion I carried from my youth was being ground out daily by the harsh realities of life. As I became more successful professionally, I paid it forward with generous donations and volunteer work. But empathy? Understanding people’s feelings? There just didn’t seem to be a role for it in my life.
Then one day, I needed a little myself. My love relationship was falling apart. I explained my concerns to my girlfriend in the hope for some understanding, but none was forthcoming. On the other hand, I was too caught up in my own issues to have any feelings for hers. The relationship ended. I was distraught, but it made me determined to learn how to be more empathetic in the future.
As I explore empathy, I have observed that I’m not the only one suffering from a lack of it. It seems to be a worldwide phenomenon. Just like me, people are demanding that they are offered compassion, but take no time to understand the viewpoint of others.
The more I learn about it, however, it seems that the opposite would be true, because the benefits of empathy are enormous. For one, it is a great way to motivate people - not just in our personal lives - but in business as well.
California-based graphic designer, Moira Hill, says, “Being empathetic absolutely helps in business - because it allows you to see things from your customer's perspective and adjust your service and how you provide them accordingly.” She adds, “Empathy increases kindness in the world. It takes little time, and a small action can have ripple effects.”
Hillary Nash is a top seller of cancer insurance policies for AFLAC. She attributes her success to sharing her own story of how her family was devastated by her father’s cancer. “I hear from clients often about how they were touched that I would share something so personal.”
Psychotherapist and author of The Self-Aware Parent, Dr. Fran Walfish, enjoys repeat business and referrals because she tells patients some of her own personal struggles. “I share a flaw of my own to help the patient put into perspective their own challenges and to realize that even the doctor whom they idealize and hold in high regard has problems, too.”
Dr. Joseph Shrand, an instructor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, says that good business is based on relationships, and that respect is the first step you take in having empathy for someone. He makes this observation, “When is the last time you got angry at a person who was treating you with respect? You don't!”
Executive coach, Dr. Karissa Thacker, sees it as a business tool. “Nice guys can finish first, if they have an enlightened, practical understanding of empathy.”
Does your empathy need a fill up?
Robert Evans Wilson, Jr. is an author, humorist, and coach. He works with people who want to achieve more without sacrificing life balance. Contact Robert at www.jumpstartyourmeeting.com