I consider myself to be pretty empathetic. Until I’m not.
I’m the first one to shake my fist at you if you cut me off in traffic. I’m the first one to complain if a coworker isn’t doing their job the way I do mine. I’m the first one to roll my eyes when I see a mom or dad out in public with kids running wild and reckless.
If I were being more empathetic, would those things bother me?
I could write a laundry list of things I could be more empathetic about. What about you?
More importantly, why should we care?
What Is Empathy?
The dictionary definition is the ability to understand and feel what another person is feeling. However, if we’re going to dig deeper here (and we are), we can also break empathy down into two categories, according to the Greater Good Magazine by Berkley University.
“Affective Empathy” is the feelings and sensations we get in response to someone else’s emotions. It could be feeling sad when someone tells a sad story and seems really upset by it, or it could be feeling stressed out by your friend who is freaking out about an impending storm. You might not fear the storm, but her reaction to it may stress you out.
“Cognitive Empathy”, or “perspective taking”, is the ability to understand, or identify, another person’s emotions, without actually having to feel them or mirror them ourselves.
Why Should We Be Empathetic?
Empathy has been observed in animals, especially primates, and in our own primitive history. After all, it’s advantageous from an evolutionary standpoint for mothers to be empathetic to the needs of their children, otherwise they might not survive.
It often goes hand-in-hand with compassion and is usually a strong component in altruism and charity. Helping others often comes from an emotional response to someone or something’s plight. You can understand why it’s bad or needs to change, and you are moved to help.
So it seems we may be hard-wired to a certain degree to care about others–except for one thing.
Human survival, and evolution, is based on self-preservation. We have to look out for ourselves, and our immediate family, so that we may continue to prosper. Humans are egotistical by nature, and that’s not always a negative thing. We are naturally going to frame our entire world and lives around ourselves because we are the one experiencing our own self at any given time.
So why care about anyone else? Why be empathetic?
I could easily point to friends and family and make a case for showing better empathy to them. That’s the easy sell though because you can easily come to that conclusion yourself. So let’s cut straight to empathy towards strangers. Also known as the General Public. Also known as the hardest people to be freaking nice to and understand/be empathetic with.
I’ll be honest–my own opinion on empathy comes from a selfish place. I want to care about strangers because I want strangers to care about me. I think the human race functions better at its core, when we are all being kind to one another. Empathy is a starting point for kindness, but you don’t necessarily need to be kind to be empathetic.
Cognitive Empathy, as mentioned above, can be applied from understanding someone’s point of view, even if you don’t necessarily feel the same feelings they do. Does it take kindness to understand someone? I think it’s in the ballpark, but it’s not always necessary. Empathy does help us “do the right thing” though when taking care of others.
Empathy leads to caring, which leads to action. You’re more likely to help someone or give to a good cause when you understand where they’re coming from. You’re more likely to go easy on them. You’re more likely to be forgiving and kind.
A lot of hatred and anger could be erased with empathy.
A lot of the world’s problems could be helped with empathy.
While that’s a naive-sounding, reductive statement, it’s true that empathy can cure hatred and anger. How can you still feel so strongly against someone or something if you come to know it and understand it? Sure, empathy doesn’t always mean you will care or advocate for that person, thing, or cause, but a heart of empathy doesn’t have a lot of room to hate something.
So How Do I Become More Empathetic?
- Listen more, talk less. It’s easy to just wait your turn to talk or to jump in when you have something to add. A lot of conversations naturally flow that way. But someone telling a heartfelt story or having an emotional moment is not the time to butt in. It’s the time to try to listen.
- Try to identify specific feelings. Are they sad? Happy? Nervous? Scared? Think of how you’d feel in that situation. Everyone’s different, but the heart of empathy is trying to put yourself in their shoes.
- Follow up. Tell the person, “I would have felt so angry in that moment,” or “that must have been awful”. Or ask a question: “What did you do next?” “How did you feel in that moment?”
- Don’t try to one-up their story or give advice, unless they ask. This isn’t the time to say, “yeah, that happened to me, too,” and then go into all the details of your story or tell them what they should do. If someone is sharing a difficult story about a chronic illness they’re suffering from or venting, it’s best to just listen. If your story helps you empathize with them (“yeah, that happened to me, too, and I felt so hopeless. I’m sorry you’re dealing with this.”), share it after they’re done. Otherwise, most of us appreciate the listening ear and non-judgmental platform.
- Talk to new people. Jodi Halpern, a psychiatrist and bioethics professor at Berkley, says, “the core of empathy is curiosity. It’s ‘what is another person’s life actually like in its particulars?’ ” Start conversations with strangers in the elevator or in a fast food line, or coworkers you don’t know well. Follow a variety of different people on social media with different backgrounds, beliefs, and cultures. Become curious and you will find things you didn’t know before–the basis of understanding.
- Participate in a group that shares your interests. While this feels opposite of the previous point, the goal of this would be to unite yourself with others who have the same common interest, goal, or hobby as you, and in doing so, you will meet lots of different people. Maybe even some you didn’t expect to find in this group. Apps like MeetUp or Bumble BFF can help you meet individuals or groups with common interests. You could also take a class at the local community center or join a recreational sports league. There’s a group or meeting for almost any interest or hobby out there.
What do you think about empathy? Is there a reason we should or shouldn’t be empathetic? What are some other ways to be empathetic? Let me know in the comments below or on social media!