It’s possible that most of us have encountered someone who doesn’t get along well with others because he or she is insensitive in his or her dealings with other people, whether at home or at the work place, or in a social situation. This person might be the kind that never listens to what others say, is intolerant of other’s point of view, or asks people for things in a very brash manner and rarely ever appreciates their efforts. Does this bring anyone to mind? Or perhaps this describes you.
The person described here lacks empathy, a very important skill that enables us to understand others. Empathy is defined as the intellectual or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts or attitudes of another person. Simply put, it is the ability to understand and share in the feelings of another person, or be able to put yourself in another person’s shoes. Selfish and egotistical people lack in empathy because often they cannot see from others’ point of view.
To be empathic, you have to be able to come alongside someone, and not only see a person’s point of view, but also experience the other person’s pain. Empathy goes beyond feeling sorry for someone, that is, sympathy. It takes one deeper, enabling them to understand a person’s pain, and in a sense even feel their hurt. This however does not mean that you should abandon your perspective or lose yourself in another’s pain in the name of empathy.
Empathy helps us better understand the needs of those around us, and the impact of our words, actions, and non-verbal communication on others, and also makes it easier to deal with the negativity of others when we are able to understand their motivations and fears. It also helps us see the bigger picture when we are able to view the world from a different perspective.
Empathy is a skill that can be both taught and learned. Research has shown that we are all born with the capacity to be empathic, though this may have been curtailed by different life events or situations. When you learn to set aside your perspective and see through someone else’s, you will realise that most people aren’t evil, stubborn, unreasonable or trying to sabotage you. They are simply reacting to a situation in the best way they know how.
Also, acknowledge and appreciate others’ points of view. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you agree with these points of view, or are glossing over the existing differences or even being a pushover. It simply shows that you accept that they have a good reason to see things the way they do. Another way to practice empathy is to listen. It is common practice in conversations on heated topics to start speaking before another finishes after having formulated a response you cannot wait to let out. In such situations, learn to force yourself to slow down and listen to what is being said, while considering the life and experience of the speaker that may have led them to a particular worldview.
When in conflict with someone, try removing yourself from the situation and forcing yourself to take a third person perspective, hard as it may be. This may enable you to see things more objectively and avoid taking the ‘I’m right, you’re wrong’ stance. Lastly, check your attitude. Is your priority getting your way, winning, or being right? Maybe you need to change this to finding a solution, building of relationships, and acceptance of others. Empathy is very important in day-to-day living and practice makes perfect.
Whenever you feel like criticizing any one… just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.
F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896–1940), American author of novels and short stories
Self-absorption in all its forms kills empathy, let alone compassion. When we focus on ourselves, our world contracts as our problems and preoccupations loom large. But when we focus on others, our world expands. Our own problems drift to the periphery of the mind and so seem smaller, and we increase our capacity for connection – or compassionate action.
Daniel Goleman, Author, psychologist, and science journalist
Treat people with understanding when you can, and fake it when you can’t
until you do understand.
Kim Harrison, American author
No one cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.
Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), American author, naturalist, explorer, historian, and politician who served as the 26th President of the United States
I do not ask the wounded person how he feels; I myself become the wounded person.
Walt Whitman (1819-1892) American poet, essayist and journalist
I think we all have empathy. We may not have enough courage to display it.
Maya Angelou, American author and poet
Empathy for me is imaginatively jumping into another person’s world and feeling their pain, happiness, hurt or worry, without judgment. It is an incredibly important aspect of our lives. Empathy fuels a human connection where we can rely on each other regardless of our individual beliefs, experiences or values. When we are able to enter another person’s world we become kinder and more compassionate individuals who can improve ourselves, our families and the plight of others.
Yasmin Manji, 25, Clinical psychologist
Published on April 2014