Make the world just a little better; Try a little empathy
Many people believe that empathy is one of society’s most highly valued virtues because it connects us and allows us to function and live together in society. In our disconnected, virtual way of living, we slowly lose touch with others and start to see everything as a little less real. With the constant bombardment of bad news and daily exposure to horrendous acts, many of us put up barriers between ourselves and others and move through our day locked inside our heads automatically and superficially connecting with others. We do this so much that it becomes a habit. We have forgotten that empathy helps us create trust and bonds us with others and can even improve the quality of our lives.
Empathy is the ability to tune into others which includes both the ability to understand another person’s point of view as well as to feel what they feel. In other words, what it must be like to “walk in their shoes.” Ironically, to be empathic of others requires us to be self-aware. That is, we understand other people by understanding ourselves. Since empathy depends on our ability to focus our attention on the other person’s feelings, the more distracted we are with our thoughts or activities, the less likely we are to show empathy.
Many of us have a natural curiosity about other people’s point of view. We want to understand how others see the world. This is labeled “cognitive empathy.” The ability to see the world through others’ eyes is mind-to-mind, giving us a mental sense of how another person thinks. According to Daniel Goleman, internationally known psychologist, the ability to understand another person gives us an understanding of the best way to communicate with that person. That is to figure out what matters most to them. Leaders with strong cognitive empathy receive better performance from their direct reports and can transition and perform better in different cultures (Goleman, 2013).
Emotional empathy is a different type of empathy and allows us to experience another person in an instantaneous body-to-body connection. This kind of empathy depends on tuning into another person’s feelings. It’s like when we see someone stub their toe, we can instantaneously feel what the pain. We can even pick up nuances in facial, vocal, and other non-verbal signs in an instant. Emotional empathy depends on our ability to tune in to our own body’s emotional signals, which automatically mirror the other person’s feelings. Individuals who experience emotional empathy can more easily predict how another person might feel. People who are good at emotional empathy are often able to make others feel “seen” or “heard” (Goleman, 2013).
The degree we are empathic varies not only from person-to-person but is also dependent on our ability to be free of judgment and bias. Also, to understand another’s point of view or their feelings, we need to be present, not locked in our heads with our internal dialogue going on. The good news is that we can change our level of empathy by practicing being more present. Through our mindfulness practice, we can learn to accept people as they are, rather than judging them through our personal veil of our biases and beliefs. Wouldn’t a little less judgment make this world just a little bit better?
Goleman, Daniel (2013). Focus. Harper Collins pp 98-115
To read additional blogs, click on a tag of interest.