Empathy is simply defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. We can sometimes feel as though we already have too many feelings of our own, and that taking on the burden of feeling what others are going through will be overwhelming.
Interestingly, the opposite seems to be true. Let’s use an example most of us can relate to. You are driving to work when suddenly a car pulls out of a parking lot right in front of you, and you have to brake hard to avoid a collision. As your pulse races and you try to steady your breathing, how do you respond? Your answer to that depends largely on your ability and your desire to empathize with others.
The absence of empathy makes it difficult to understand another person’s perspective, so your response to the near-miss in traffic will likely be anger and hostility. Defensiveness assumes that the other driver willfully did something dangerous that could have caused a crash and that there is no excuse. The anger can fester as you repeat the story of the “idiot who almost killed you”. Being frightened by the incident is understandable, but thinking only about how you felt will cause your stomach to churn, your blood pressure to rise and your attitude to sour. If you live your life without empathy, keep your antacid on hand!
With empathy, however, you are more likely to put yourself in the other driver’s shoes and see the incident from their point of view – or at least attempt to do so. You will be more open to consider that the other driver could be a basically decent human being who had a momentary lapse in judgment and who was just as surprised and afraid as you were. If you’re honest, you may be able to relate to that because at some time in your history of driving a car you misjudged and made an error that could have caused – or did cause – an accident. With a little effort, we can imagine ourselves in someone else’s situation and feel what they may be feeling. You will recover much more quickly from the shock if you don’t harbor the anger.
Life offers us almost daily opportunities to practice empathy: Friends share their marriage problems, your kids are upset because of a failed exam, your spouse had a tough day at work, the waiter just can’t seem to get your order straight. You have a choice of how you will respond. Will you stand back and judge, criticize or give unsolicited advice, or will you take the time to understand what the situation feels like for the other person? Even if you have not experienced the exact same circumstances, you may be able to relate to the feelings of hurt, frustration, disappointment, embarrassment, etc. So respond to others the way you would want someone to respond to you.
Some people are more naturally empathetic than others, so it’s easy for them to relate to others. If it doesn’t come easily for you, however, you can work on developing the skill. Ask yourself two simple questions: “How would I feel in this person’s situation?” “What does this person need right now?” Make it a habit to take a breath and ask yourself those questions before responding to someone who is sharing something difficult with you.
So, what about you? How have you been able to put yourself in another person’s shoes? How do you feel when someone really seems to understand what you’re experiencing? Leave a comment below!
When we share each other’s burdens, it helps all of us. Empathy is one of the most effective ways to lighten the load – and it will save you a small fortune in antacids!
Live, Work & Relate Well!