Good news! You don’t have to obtain a master’s degree, read a bunch of literature, or have an innate sense of ‘others come first’ to master the skill of empathizing. If you have ever been moved by a character in a movie, book or song, you have been practicing! Empathy by definition is the experience of understanding another person's condition from their perspective. You place yourself in their shoes and feel what they are feeling.
We all grow up with our own unique, subjective view of the world and no two people, even two raised in the same home, possess the same experience. We tend to feel the uncomfortable emotions of fear, anger, sadness, cynicism or apathy when encountering someone else who doesn’t see or feel the same way about an issue. A good test of this is asking a group of people their view of a homeless man on the side of the road asking for money. You will hear a wide range of responses all because everyone is processing the encounter through their own long history of feelings, thoughts and experiences.
What would happen if each person stopped their initial judgment call and considered the homeless man’s experience before their own? A child when asked what he or she wants to be when grown up rarely responds with, “A homeless beggar.” This leads me to think that this was not the original plan the man on the side of the road had for his life. We live in a challenging, sometimes painful world and the more we assume other’s “should” think or feel the way we do in a situation gridlocks our ability to grow in our understanding and acceptance of others. Just like with any art form, practice makes perfect, and in my next blog I will share practical tools you can implement in your home, workplace, and on the side of the road. Stay tuned.