There was once a time when people had different viewpoints that lead to interesting discussions, useful debates and solutions to problems. It’s time we returned to civilized conversations and that requires rediscovering empathy.
I attended an all-day training last week on the subject of racial equity in family care systems and it revealed some pretty upsetting facts about racism and people’s behavior in the U.S. Then the leaked supreme court opinion regarding Roe vs Wade issue blew up and I was deeply disturbed by images of people screaming at each other on the streets. Part of me just wanted to ignore it all because I’m tired of all of the discourse but I also have a strong desire to see positive change, so I had to remind myself that change starts small and that hope still exists.
We are living in a time where human communication is failing, despite all of our technology. Of course, part of the problem is the technology that encourages us to communicate remotely instead of in person and that creates platforms that allow us to anonymously be as mean and vicious as we please with little to no ramifications.
Even five or six years ago, it could be said that no one would speak to someone in person the way they speak to people online. I’ve observed a spilling over into the real world over the past few years however, and am shocked at the way people speak, or yell, at other people now online and in public. We seem to have lost our sense of decorum, at least in the United States. Politeness and consideration are completely irrelevant these days. But I think that’s a mistake for our species. I don’t think we can continue to tear each other down and still flourish as a society. It’s led us to this point where we can’t have intelligent discussions on topics anymore, nor can we solve problems together.
I think empathy is at the heart of our woes, or rather the lack of it. Increasingly, people are deciding that their way is the right way and they won’t listen to anyone who disagrees. That’s not communication, but declaration. As human beings, we need connection which is largely facilitated through communication and I really think we need to find our way back to connecting.
In simple terms, empathy is the ability to understand things from another person's perspective. It's the ability to share someone else's feelings and emotions and understand why they're having those feelings. Empathy is about emotional connection and empathic communication involves both accepting and allowing different perspectives and emotions in other people, as well as sharing our own with others to enable encouragement and support. It’s also the practice of actively listening, in an effort to understand the emotions of the person we’re communicating with.
According to psychologists Daniel Goleman and Paul Ekman, there are three types of empathy: cognitive, emotional, and compassionate.
Cognitive empathy is the ability to understand how someone else feels and to work out what they might be thinking. Emotional empathy refers to the ability to share another person's emotions. This would mean when you see someone else who is sad, it makes you feel sad. Compassionate empathy is when you take feelings to actions. It goes beyond understanding and relating to other people's situations and pushes us to do something.
Empathy is important in almost every aspect of daily life. It allows us to have compassion for others, relate to friends, loved ones, co-workers, and strangers, and it has a large benefit impact on the world. While there is some evidence that the ability to empathize is traced to genetic predisposition, it's also true that empathy is a skill that can be increased or decreased.
It is estimated that 98% of people have the ability to empathize with others. The few exceptions are psychopaths, narcissists, and sociopaths who are people that are unable to understand or relate to other people's feelings and emotions.
Empathy from a global perspective is critically important, especially when it leads to compassion. This type of empathy pushes people to dive in and help when there are major disasters. People are willing to help others that they have never met because they know that they too would need help if things were reversed. We’ve seen a lot of compassionate empathy over the past few years, despite the increased hostility that has been erupting, as we’ve navigated political upheavals, the pandemic and now the war in Ukraine. But aside from disasters, our empathy seems to be in short supply these days.
Former President Barack Obama said, "The biggest deficit that we have in our society and in the world right now is an empathy deficit. We are in great need of people being able to stand in somebody else’s shoes and see the world through their eyes."
Again, it is possible to increase our levels of empathy, but before we can take on another person’s perspective in order to better understand and engage with them, we need to improve our own listening skills. The next time you’re having a conversation with someone, practice listening intently. That doesn’t just mean limiting how much you’re talking. It means preventing your mind from wandering and really focusing on their words. Most of us get so caught up in what we want to say next, we stop listening to what the other person is saying to us. Practicing active listening forces us to invest in what the other person in the conversation is interested in.
Listening is best achieved when we set aside our own thoughts and opinions and mindfully think about what another person is saying. We can also do a better job of listening when we set aside distractions like cell phones or tablets. When we give our undivided attention to others, we make them feel like they are cared for and it gives us an opportunity to truly understand their point of view.
We can use reflective listening to increase our empathic communications. Instead of saying something like “I know how you feel,” try to reflect on the context that’s causing people to react in a particular way. We don’t really understand how someone else feels, but we can validate their emotional experience by letting them know that we can empathize, perhaps by saying something like, “I would be upset, too, if I experienced that.” Without relying on interpretation, verbalizing someone’s feelings back to them in your own words helps people feel not only heard, but understood.
The difficulty, of course, is to try to understand people with differing opinions and beliefs so that we can communicate empathically. For most of us, it’s much easier to identify with people who are in our "in-group." It's far easier to trust or understand people who we think are like us. But this type of thinking can be inhibiting in a diverse workplace, it may suppress compassionate empathy for those outside of our own community, religion, gender or race, and we know it creates ineffective governance that harms millions.
To challenge this type of thinking, it's important to take the time to understand people who are different. To expand empathy, a person might have to question pre-conceived notions and biases and consider another person's point of view. This can also be achieved by people broadening their circle and becoming friends with people they might not ordinarily spend time with. They may be surprised to find that they have more in common than they first believed, and it is even more likely that they will broaden their ability for empathy.
Interestingly, reading fiction can actually increase empathy. New studies show that when people read fiction, their brains really feel like they're entering the world in the story. The reason this discovery matters is because it shows that people are able to identify with people and groups that are actually outside of themselves, living lives entirely different from their own.
In an article about this study, The Guardian writes, "In fiction…we are able to understand characters’ actions from their interior point of view, by entering into their situations and minds, rather than the more exterior view of them that we usually have." In other words, where we would ordinarily not have access to another person's thoughts, literature gives us a window into the inner thoughts of other people. I’ve read several books that have done that for me, like the #1 Ladies Detective Agency series by Alexander McCall Smith, all about a remarkable woman in Botswana. She gave me a completely different perspective on what living in at least that part of Africa was like and I ended up identifying with her in surprising ways. So pick up a novel about a person in China or Turkey or even Hogwarts and learn to identify with someone completely different from you.
As the debate over Roe vs Wade heats up, it can provide an opportunity to strengthen our empathy skills and practice empathetic communication. The protests will likely get uglier, but keep in mind what Albert Einstein said: "Peace cannot be kept by force; it can only be achieved by understanding."
It is possible to acknowledge people’s subjective experience even if we disagree with them, saying something like, “that’s not been my experience, but I appreciate you sharing your views.” We don’t have to be right all of the time, right? Pause and reflect before you go on a twitter rant or shout in someone’s face on the street. We need to get our egos out of our conversations and get back to recognizing that we all need each other. Times are tough. Do we really need to add aggression and disharmony to our long list of challenges? It seems completely mindless to me, but I hope you’ll give it some thought.