Empathy in essence is being aware of another person’s feelings. It is a way of understanding those feelings as one’s own (emotions). If we simply are aware of another person’s feelings in all likelihood we are ‘sympathizing’ with them rather than feeling empathy which would require us to use our imagination and place ourselves in their shoes.
Empathy requires a lot more involvement. To develop empathy (and I believe we all have miles to go but we can learn) it would require us to
- Take a good look at ourselves and our biases (introspect). As John Dewey says, “We do not learn from our experiences we learn from reflecting on those experiences”. (Reimaging Empathy: The Transformative Nature of Empathy, Paul Parkin, TEDxUVU https://youtu.be/e4aHb_GTRVo)
- Find ways to interact with people who are different from us. Be interested in their lives and their thoughts.
- Active listening: Active listening is engaged listening. Para-phrasing what you have heard but most importantly listening to understand as opposed to listening to respond.
As Paul Parkin suggests imagining to be in someone else’s shoes could lead to assumptions about their experiences which could lead to misunderstanding- Empathy is the righteous struggle to try.
Attempt to empathize through communication, inquisitive and non judgmental dialogue. (Watch this video to understand more on the challenge some Black Americans face https://youtu.be/v4amCfVbA_c
This can be easily translated to other cultures as well especially things like social contracts)
Dr. Helen Riess at TEDxMiddlebury states that the essence of empathy is to be seen and heard and understood.
Sawubona, is an ancient Zulu greeting which means: We see you.
Most people, says Dr. Helen Riess,” have the need to see their specialness reflected in the eyes of others in order to see it themselves’.
We all need to see each other to bring out the full potential in one another. That’s extending empathy and receiving empathy.
I am listening to stories from my Muslim friends in India who are being systemically targeted these past few years. I see the lower income group in India being ignored or treated poorly as policies roll out (demonetization, lock-down rules, special train services after lock-down phase 2, institutional quarantine facilities offered by the government). I have heard many heart breaking personal stories from my Black American friends and Native American friends. We have to listen, we have to see, we have to empathize. We are made to empathize (neuroscience reveals that we as humans have a natural tendency to empathize). When we contribute empathy we contribute to the making of an empathic society. We can make this world a better place – its upto you and I.
Click here for some resources- articles and an empathy map (resource #4) to help build empathy.