Cultivating empathy in ourselves is something all of us should endeavor to do. There are three main steps to do this. First, we must be open-minded. Second, we must learn to walk in other people’s shoes. Third, we must communicate our acceptance of their experience in an appropriate manner.
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Being open-minded is a commonly exalted virtue that many of us can struggle with. We tend to have difficulties understanding the ways different people perceive the world and express emotions when these conflict with our own views. The best way to remedy this is to simply talk to people from different backgrounds and viewpoints. Expose yourself to different discourses and ways of understanding things. Travel far and wide if you can, and familiarize yourself with cultures where things are done differently from your own.
Walking in someone else’s shoes requires that we pay as close attention to them as possible so that we can understand where they’re coming from and what influences are at play. We must suspend our own views and see the way from the other’s lens. A great way to inculcate this skill is to simply read fiction. This puts you into the mind of a character that is not you, and you get to observe how they describe events, emotions, thoughts, etc.
Lastly, our understanding is only worth something when we can communicate it well. Be careful in the verbal and non-verbal cues you send out. Respect boundaries when they’re asserted and try to remember the things that are shared with you.
Element 1: Open-mindedness
Perhaps it would be better to say, “open-heartedness.”
As we saw in the six-step validation process earlier, it all starts with receptive, respectful listening. We can only empathize with others if we take the time to set aside our own ego for a moment, and actually pay attention to someone else. This openness is a special attitude characterized by being deeply present with what is, and being willing to learn something new.
In a way, it’s a loving curiosity about other people in the world—the desire to know more about people and what makes them tick. The best way to do this is to forget about yourself for a moment. Get out of your world and set aside your assumptions and biases. Look at other people like they are fascinating books waiting to be read, or new planets waiting to be explored. Drop the idea that people should be characterized as friend or foe, or judged according to how much they agree with you. Rather, see people on their terms entirely. Another person is a whole new universe—see yourself as an adventurer exploring these new realms with respect and awe.
Practically speaking, what this looks like is occasionally stepping out of your comfort zone: engage with people, ideas and media you ordinarily wouldn’t, just to see what happens. This will help you reveal and work on your biases, something all of us have in some form. Due to how homogenous our social circles have become, we’re often closed off or ignorant of how other people see the world around us and how their perspective contrasts with our own views. Have a conversation where you just shup up and listen, making the other person the complete focus of your attention. Travel, if you can, or simply go somewhere different from where you normally go. Turn on all your senses and really open up to experiences different from your own.
But we are not just opening to positive feelings: can you imagine what it must be like to have difficulty with something that you currently experience as easy or automatic? Go without a luxury for a while. Humility is a great friend of empathy. The next time you are disappointed, angry, confused or sad, sit with the feeling for a moment and try to imagine others who have been there. Try on all perspectives, including those where you feel helpless and vulnerable. What a wonderful resource to draw on the next time you encounter someone who feels that way!
It might be nice to think of empathy as something inborn, a bit like a personality trait, but in reality it’s a muscle we can exercise, and a skill we can develop if we really want to. Simply knowing this already makes us more receptive and open-minded. You can ask yourself earnestly, in what ways could I be more empathetic, right now? What is really standing in the way of me fully entering into the world of another person?
You can practice open-mindedness right now. Think of someone in your life, preferably someone you have a little friction with, or perhaps have had difficulty empathizing with in the past, then ask yourself:
How are they feeling right now? What is their behavior like, and what do they say and express? In other words, what must it be like to be them?
If you can identify their emotions, ask yourself why they might be responding that way. Can you see how the facts of their personalities, histories, strengths, weaknesses, etc. have contributed to their experience? You are really asking—in what ways does their reality make sense to you?
Can you find any points of commonality between you both? Have you felt like this person before? If not, can you imagine how it might feel to be in their shoes?
Element 2: Walking in their shoes
Empathy is not just abstractly understanding that someone else lives in a different world from you, or looking at it from afar with detached interest. Rather, empathy is “walking in their shoes” and seeing that world through their eyes. This is important—you don’t regard the facts of their experience from your own perspective, but from theirs. This takes you deeper than mere validation. You not only see, acknowledge and respect the difference, but embrace it and engage with it as your own (albeit temporarily).
Once we have truly listened and heard another’s experience, once we have been receptive to what it’s like to be them, we can try on that perspective for ourselves. We can feel their feelings, think their thoughts. Obviously, empathy is an intimate act, and it isn’t really possible or even desirable to maintain this state of mind for prolonged periods. When we develop empathy, we need to remain conscious of deliberately seeing into another life, while still maintaining our own sense of self and the boundaries around it.
Generally, we can get better at walking in someone else’s shoes the more we do it. This means when someone tells us something, we don’t just accept it and move on; we ask questions so we can understand the person, deeply. Why do certain things matter to this person? How do they feel about XYZ, and how do their core values and beliefs all fit together?
How do they explain life to themselves, what language do they use, what do they focus on, and what is their attitude? Importantly, you are seeing their world as they see it, not as you do. You might not agree or understand it at all, from your perspective. But can you see that from their perspective, their world makes perfect sense, and everything is in order when you change your frame of reference?
Practically, a great way to develop this skill is perhaps an unexpected one: read. When you read fiction, you are asked to imagine life from a character’s point of view. You suspend your own identity for a while and look at the world from their identity instead. This is not dissimilar from what you do when you empathically imagine another person’s reality. Your world may be a rom-com, but what must it be like to be the protagonist in a sci-fi spy novel set 3000 years in the future?
Some questions to ask yourself to get into the mind of another:
What are their core values? How do they manifest?
How do I appear to this other person?
What matters to this person? What hurts them and what fulfills them?
What are this person’s goals in life?
How does this person think of themselves? (This can be illuminating—few of us can say our self-conception matches the general impression we make to others!)
Element 3: Communicating acceptance
The final part of the empathic process is to bring your new sense of understanding and acceptance into the real world, and share it with the other person. You could have complete empathy for their thoughts and feelings, and sincerely see where they’re coming from. But if you do nothing about it, and cannot share that you have this knowledge, its’s almost as though you didn’t have it. Empathy is its most powerful when it can be demonstrated to the object of its focus, and when it can power our behavior in the real world.
In this final and perhaps most important aspect of empathy, we need to take our feelings of validation and acceptance, and convey them meaningfully to the other person. We need to allow our enriched understanding to benefit not just them as individuals, but to enhance our relationships and deepen connection and understanding.
What does this look like practically? In reading this book, and learning ways to alter techniques such as communication styles, you have already taken a step in this direction. When we take active measures to become better listeners, to express acceptance for others, and to show what empathy looks like in the real world by modeling it during disagreements and arguments, we make empathy practical.
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