Have you ever been told that you should try putting yourself in another person’s shoes? Few of us fully understand that phrase because few of us understand what empathy really means.
Empathy is the ability to understand the emotions and perspectives or views of another person. Empathy is about understanding and feeling what someone else is feeling without holding to it… It teaches us to respond instead of react. Empathy gives us security in feeling. It creates a bond between people and allows connection on a heart level.
Sometimes we are so unknowingly self-absorbed that we often forget that we are just like our family, friends, co-workers and acquaintances – meaning they all feel too.
I was once oblivious to someone’s feelings, and my incapability to grasp it caused a rift between us that only I could mend, once I understood empathy. I then met someone who lived in South Africa and she told me she used to visit the beach every day and always watched the beach vendors – she used to wonder where they come from, and what their story was.
So she began to ask. She went on to tell me how she noticed some of the eyes of the story tellers would light up when she assured them she wanted to know and was genuinely interested. It was then that she learned what empathy was. She heard heart breaking stories and she has shed tears with her fellow human.
She told me it was her curiosities that lead her to understand empathy and that it has changed her view on the world and people. She also said, “That if you ever want to try and cultivate empathy, you must listen with an open heart and without the intention of replying or reacting.”
I thought about one of the stories she had told me about one of the vendors and when I closed my eyes, I, for the first time, tried to imagine what he felt on his journey to from northern Africa to southern Africa.
It was a weird feeling but I enjoyed it. I then decided that from that moment on I will make it my duty to remember that we are all the same and we all deserve to be understood and respected for our feelings.
According to an article posted on Uplift, there are six ways to cultivate and become a more empathic person.
- Be curious. – Be curious about other people’s emotions and try be genuinely interested in their story.
- Learn how to challenge prejudices while discovering commonalities. A lot of us were programmed and taught labels that place us into a boxes and this creates prejudices. Highly empathic people look for common ground and things that they share with another, rather than things that separate them
- Walk a mile in another man’s shoes. – If you find yourself wondering what it is like living in the poorer, less fortunate social margin, do what George Orwell did. Back in 1920 when he returned to Britain, he became determined to discover what it was like living in the less fortunate parts of Britain. He wrote, “I wanted to submerge myself, to get right down among the oppressed.” – So he did just that and documented it in his book “Down and Out in Paris and London” What he discovered was that the ‘drunken scoundrels’ were not scoundrels at all. In fact, he created friendships with these “scoundrels”. His time among them changed his view on inequality and human nature.
- Listen attentively and be present. – Being there for someone requires a genuine sense of presence. When we listen we must listen with an open heart. We must have patience and also, when the time is right; open up in response to whoever you are in conversation with. Make it clear that you understand and have felt that feeling before, therefore you can relate. Communication is key and empathy is a two way street. An exchange of energy. Being in the now creates a trust and understanding bond. However, you must want to listen and understand before you can be present.
- Using empathy to inspire max action and social change. – According to the Uplift article mentioned above, highly empathic people are aware of something most of us aren’t. Empathy, if cultivated on a global scale has the power to change the world and bring peace through understanding and acceptance. A journalist from the 18th and 19th century who writes about that abolition of slavery reminds us that, “The abolitionists placed their hope not in sacred texts but human empathy” They did all they could to try make people understand the real suffering endured on a plantation or slave ship. It was the empathy of Abraham Lincoln and all his followers, that in the end, abolished slavery. Just as the international trade union movement was started due to the empathy felt for fellow industrial workers with whom they shared exploitation with. Another example is the TRC – which was a truth and reconciliation council formed after the South African apartheid war. The aim of this council was to allow the family members of the deceased to hear from the people who killed their loved ones exactly what they were feeling. It gave some closure and allowed some to forgive.
- Be ready to challenge and empathize with things that contradict your beliefs. – We should learn to be empathic towards people’s beliefs that we don’t share. Or to people we may not even like. In order to be a truly empathic person you must remain detached from the situation and aware of the feelings and motions of that moment. Try understanding why the person feels what they are feeling and what drives their actions. This puts you in the observer position and this is a great place to be when wanting to be present and aware. For instance, if you are a global warming protestor, it might help trying to put yourself in the shoes of the oil company’s executives. He or she might have no knowledge of what they are doing as they are often not the real guys in charge. So by realizing this you can strategize another plan to get them to shift towards renewable energy.
To conclude this article I would like to share a vision that the ‘Father of social entrepreneurship’, Bill Drayton had about our future. He believed that in an age of rapid technological development the key to business survival is mastering empathy. He believed that business owners should empathize with each other because it creates trust and team work. According to Bill the 20th century was about introspection and that’s it has caused a selfish streak in mankind.
He says, “The 21st century should become the Age of Empathy, when we discover ourselves not simply through self-reflection, but by becoming interested in the lives of others. We need empathy to create a new kind of revolution.
Not an old-fashioned revolution built on new laws, institutions, or policies, but a radical revolution in human relationships.” And in the words of George Orwell, “empathy doesn’t just make you good—it’s good for you, too.”