Empathy is something we all need to build strong relationships. This weekend, as we celebrate Veterans Day, put yourself in the shoes of a soldier who has fought for your freedom. Think about the sacrifices made and express gratitude to those who have given much for our freedom.
Empathy is not only needed in relationships but it is one of the building blocks of morality. Lately, we seem to have lost empathy for those who struggle in life or disagree with us. Instead of better understanding, we go into attack mode or become indifferent. It’s time to bring empathy back.
Empathy is basically putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. You can have affective empathy which is when you feel or share someone’s emotions. Or you can have cognitive empathy in which you understand another person’s perspective and how they think.
Empathy is a trait or skill that can be learned. One of the ways to become more empathetic is to be exposed to the needs of others–not just by hearing something on the news, but by actually spending time with those who are different and hearing their stories. This is why people come back so moved from a missions trip–they have seen another side of life and can better understand what others are going through.
One of the insulators for empathy is wealth. In general, wealthy people turn more inward and socialize with others who have wealth. Unless they intentionally put themselves in touch with needy people, they will be less likely to empathize. When you see the need, your brain arches towards compassion.
So here are a few ideas to teach someone to be more empathetic:
- Expose them to the needs of others–take them to soup kitchens, homeless shelters, drug rehabilitation centers, etc. Exposure will activate parts of the brain needed to build empathy.
- Get feedback from others regarding how they see problems in the culture. Don’t simply talk to your own familiar group. Rather talk to those different from you and hear other perspectives. Be open to differing views. One of the problems we see now is that certain groups act like attack dogs if you don’t share their perspective. This is dangerous and only creates enmity not empathy.
- Don’t be judgmental. Truly listen to others and their stories. Sadly, there is cultural permission for some narratives and not others. All people should be able to express their views without fear of retaliation. While I try not to take sides on political issues, I am horrified by the lack of civility, shouting people down, and attacking those whose stories are not liked. This shows a lack of empathy and is bullying.
- To combat this, make sure you truly understand a position and hear all sides. Ask questions, get clarification, seek the truth.
- Practice comforting others. Get focused on needs outside of yourself and you will feel better. Acknowledge another person’s pain, share how you feel by saying something like, “I don’t know what to say” or “I am glad you told me.” Then be encouraging and supportive by offering hope- not unrealistic hope but hope for a better day and to be with them as they walk through difficulty.