Practicing Empathy

I first learned about practicing empathy in design school. As design thinkers and researchers, we needed to be empathic with our stakeholders in order to first understand their problem context and domain. Doing this work required us designers to develop an intentional understanding of human factors and context as well as specialized interpersonal skills for working collaboratively. Using a creative process and design research, we gained insights into people’s life patterns and behaviors, and the contexts in which they operated. We then applied those insights to create meaningful experiences that helped shape and influence life patterns and behaviors of both organizations and individuals in the community.

I’ll be the first to admit — practicing empathy is hard. It’s difficult — arduous even. It requires listening to others with one’s heart, not mind. It requires stepping into the shoes of the other person and seeing the world from their perspective without passing judgment. This is much easier said than done.

Thoreau has said, and I paraphrase, that there is no greater miracle than seeing through each other’s eyes if only for a moment. If we could all stand in someone else’s shoes, hear what they hear, see what they see, feel what they feel, believe what they believe, not only would we treat them differently, but we would most likely do the same thing in their position.

It’s one thing to know intellectually what empathy is and it’s altogether different to practice it. I say this from experience. I know I should be more empathic in my everyday situations with my closest relationships, but I am not.

At the risk of stating the obvious, empathy is different from sympathy. Where practicing empathy is about understanding and sharing the feelings of others, sympathy is about having a feeling of pity or sorrow for someone’s misfortunes. We are not going to be talking about the latter in this draft.

It’s often harder to practice empathy in your closest relationships than with the world at large. In other words, it’s easier to practice it with the outside world than with our closest relationships. I’ve found this to be true in my experience. I’ve found it hardest to practice empathy with my life partner than with my other relationships and the outside world. There have been countless situations where I should have listened and tried to understand her, but I instead wanted her to understand me first (no matter how justified I felt in my reasoning). Of course, one of my long-time complaints has been that she never understands me because I never feel listened to, let alone be understood by her. That causes resentment in me, and further pushes me away from making any effort towards understanding her.

Practicing empathy can be challenging in difficult situations — such as conflicts. Having the heart to listen to others without judging them in that moment requires a lot of love, courage, and willingess to understand their pain and to empathize with them. It requires us to hold back our emotions for the time being in the interest of understanding the other person without feeling the need to agree or disagree with them and making them feel understood. I’ve repeatedly made the error of reacting in conflicts with my partner when I should have listened to her to understand her better. Of course, only when she later feels understood and becomes calm can I begin to explain my viewpoint. Until that point, I need to listen, understand, and empathize. That’s all.

It’s often hardest to practice empathy when you know you are “right” about something, and you just want the other person to realize it. It’s frustrating when they don’t. But, it’s more often we need to take the time to understand others first while suspending/deferring our judgement about what we believe. This is much harder in practice (and is obvious only in hindsight).

Practicing empathy involves using both your left and right brain to reflect the words and the emotions behind them to understand others. I’ve written about empathic listening before.

When it comes to emotions, logic always fails. When others get angry or are emotionally charged, agree with what they are saying in those moments without getting defensive. Avoid questioning them or talking logically as neither would work. Question them only to understand their viewpoint better. Find out their intent, but don’t judge them on their actions alone. Did they mean to hurt you (intentionally or accidentally)? Your heart is what is needed to listen to them, so leave your mind behind for later conversations.

The thing is that we need to understand the other person first. Unless we can find out what has their attention and why it has their attention, we cannot get their attention. They have things in their head that are going on, which we need to address first. Unless we do so, we’ll never get their attention for things we want to address with them.

We can empathize all the time with others’ behaviors. They don’t have to open up to us verbally before we can empathize with them. We don’t have to feel extreme joy or sadness to share our feelings and emotions with others. Heck, we don’t even have to verbalize them.

There is a difference between practicing empathy with everyone and those who you know closely. With the latter, you have to be able to understand them deeply, which requires you to create a “safe space” in which they can feel truly uninhibited.

Practicing empathy requires a genuine willingness to understand others and to see the world from their perspective, if only for a short while, without judging them or agreeing/disagreeing with them, but listening to them and understanding them. They will let you know when they feel understood, and it’s at this point that you can help them understand how you feel, but that comes later (if/when you get to that point).

Here’s what Tony Schwartz has written about practicing empathy:

Put yourself in someone else’s shoes. When you’re feeling righteous, put yourself in the shoes of the other person and try to imagine what he or she is feeling. Empathy allows you to value others which reconnects you to them and makes you feel better.

By the way, let’s not confuse being empathic with “solving problems” for others. Helping others by being empathic toward them can facilitate a process that can help them solve their problems on their own, but that is different. I bring this up because we are often inclined to solve problems for others when they bring it up or when we first hear about it without thinking twice. Although we may think we are helping their cause, we couldn’t be more wrong. At a time when they needed us to listen, we were giving half-baked advice based on incomplete information and at the wrong time, which is wrong on so many levels.

If we could be heard by others without them “solving” our problems/challenges, we would feel so much better. That’s right — we don’t need others to solve our problems (more often than not, we can do that by ourselves). We just need to be heard, which requires empathic skills. We all have these skills, but they may have atrophied.

When we practice empathy with others, we make them feel understood (only when they acknowledge it) and, as a result of which, build trust with others. We improve our relationships with those who matter to us. We are more kind and compassionate with everyone and we stop judging. We appreciate others for what they are and not for what they aren’t. When others make mistakes, we give them the benefit of the doubt. We understand that everyone is trying to get by in this world, and being empathic will only help in that cause.

We all need to be heard from time to time. We need to be listened to by our friends, our spouses, our families, etc. We need a safe, comfortable space where we can be truly “divergent” with those we trust. In this space, we know we are being listened to and understood by our friends and families so we can be uninhibited in how we express ourselves. Only when we can tell others how we truly feel about something can we be “free”.

If we could all practice empathy with each other when we needed it, the world would be a much better place (devoid of any conflicts), but maybe I am too naive and sounding utopian in thinking that (but I remain optimistic nonetheless). I think if I had to distill it down, the root of all problems in the world would come down to unhappiness, and one of the significant reasons for being unhappy is not being listened to by others when we need it the most.

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