Empathy is me and you

If you’re ever feeling down or a little cynical, I recommended entering “faith in humanity restored” into a search engine – and then just sit back and wait for the tears of joy and gratitude to fall. I bet one bazillion dollars that you’ll choke up a little (please don’t take me up on that; I don’t think I have that amount in my account at present). Just avoid doing it at work, or prior to any engagement in which having puffy, teary, or mascara streaked-eyes is a faux pas.

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In the decade that I’ve been conducted research on human behavior, the concept of “empathy” still eludes me. Not because I don’t have it; empathizing with someone is one of those things that everyone does naturally, but most people don’t quite understand how or why – like saying “Bless you” when a person sneezes. Here’s the clearest definition I can come up with: Empathy is the ability to step back, put aside preconceived notions, and look at the world through someone else’s eyes. It’s the ability to understand someone’s feelings, motivations, and fears. And I don’t just mean “good” people; even people who have done horrible things did them for a reason, and it’s only by empathizing with them that we can understand why. As a well-known hostage negotiator put it (and I paraphrase): “You need to be able to empathize with the kidnapper – even feel compassion for them. Every person has a story, often a sad one, that motivates their actions and decisions, and this is the key to resolving the situation in the best way possible.”

So what makes empathy so important? When I looked at data collected from Queendom’s Emotional Intelligence Test, here’s what I discovered about people who score high on empathy:

  • They go out of their way to help others
  • They are “social chameleons,” able to adjust their behavior to any social situation
  • They consider the ethical consequences of their actions
  • They can be civil and kind, even if they dislike a person
  • They’re comfortable talking about and expressing their feelings
  • They’re willing to change their opinions
  • They are comfortable showing affection
  • They self-monitor their behavior – which means that they catch themselves before saying or doing something they’ll regret
  • They are happy with their life
  • They are comfortable being around someone who is feeling emotional, needs to be consoled, or needs help solving a personal problem (in fact, 74% would willingly postpone after-work plans to help a coworker finish a project – and expect nothing in return!).
  • They see humans as being inherently good
  • They think through their decisions
  • They enjoy giving people advice and helping them solve problems
  • They know how to put people at ease when they’re scared or nervous
  • They’re less likely to have arguments, but when they do, they’re willing to compromise
  • My personal favorite: They believe that the concept of what is “normal” human behavior is a gray area, rather than black and white.

When it comes to practicing empathy, some experts suggest that you “fake it until you make it.” I don’t think it’s possible or necessary to fake empathy. If you have trouble empathizing with others, take a moment to put yourself in their shoes and ask yourself, “How would I feel if I had to deal with their experience? What would motivate them to behave the way they did?” When you take the time to really understand someone, you’ll be surprised at what you’ll discover. Here are some other tips I can offer:

  • Put empathy in action. Get involved with helping people in some way, like volunteering. The closer you get to a situation, the more you will realize the difficulties others might be facing. That homeless man who you tend to skirt around and ignore likely has a back story.
  • Put aside your own preoccupations. Consider what might be going through other people’s minds in different situations. Ask yourself how you would feel in a similar situation – there are always several perspectives. Try to identify at least 2 or 3 different ways to look at it.
  • Understand that everyone has a bad day. And sometimes bad weeks, months, and years. Sure it can be hard to overlook it when someone snaps at you or is otherwise unpleasant, but remember: Everyone is unpleasant when under stress – even you.
  • Don’t fall victim to “The Fundamental Attribution Error”. We as humans are forever trying to figure out the causes of other’s actions. All too often, we attribute misfortunate behavior on the part of others to dispositional rather than situational factors. For instance, writing others off as jerks for snapping at you rather than looking for external causes such as being sick or having been fired that day. As a result, we are less forgiving than many situations call for. Try to understand that others are under just as much pressure and stress as you are and as a result, their behavior may not always represent who they are as people.

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Insightfully yours,

Queen D

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