“So, what do you think empathy means?” I casually asked my 11-year-old son, bustling out the door one Sunday morning. “It means you should push your friend on the ground and then laugh at him,” he said with a sideways grin and a twinkle of trouble in his beautiful, hazel eyes. I love that answer. His quick, sarcastic affirmation of my most sacred parenting values.
It’s the simplest thing really, taking a moment and allowing (or forcing) yourself to imagine how another person feels. Except it’s not always easy. Human nature leads us to judge and categorize everything around us based on the information at hand and our own life experiences. Opinions are shaped by snippets from our digital newsfeeds, and we are inundated with sensationalist media reports and complex political agendas. I rarely watch the news, because I can only handle so much negativity in my life and I’m distrustful of most news sources. Instead, I choose to spend my time and energy looking for the goodness around me and connecting with it however I can. The bad in life is always uncovered eventually, but it softens the blow when the good stuff comes first. This works for people too.
Each connection we have with another person has the ability to add or detract from the goodness we experience in life. By strengthening and expanding our scope of caring, we all have the power to increase the positive energy that we take in and give out. Through this intentional practice, we can improve our own lives and shift the scales toward positive change in our relationships and communities.
So how does this work in real life? First, we need to recognize that empathy is not the act of feeling bad for someone, or allowing them to mistreat us. Empathy is the ability to hold a little space for the feelings and experiences that lead people to think and act in ways we don’t easily understand. For example, when a colleague moves forward on a project that was originally my idea, I challenge myself to view her as someone “enthusiastically pursuing her life-long goal” or someone who is “trying to develop her leadership potential” instead of calling her “a power-hungry, idea-stealing bitch.” It helps to think of how we usually understand and explain away bad behavior when we love someone or know them personally. I can understand why my own daughter is having a temper tantrum, because I know she was up late and she is probably hungry (since I forgot to make lunch).
Empathy is my primary coping mechanism for daily life. Sometimes I even make things up, telling myself that the person who just stole my place in the grocery store line “must be rushing to get to her dying mother’s bedside.” I believe that this momentary decision to respond with fictitious empathy frees up my spirit to respond a little more calmly when my 5-year-old melts down, because I forgot to buy her classroom snack. It might even help me remember to buy the snack—since I’ll have a few extra minutes to think about it while we’re waiting in line!
Through life experience and genetic disposition, I am blessed with stronger than average empathy muscles. As a social worker, connecting with the feelings and fears beneath a person’s behavior is the foundation of everything I do. But you’d never know what an amazing empathy expert I am if you caught me in the throes of domestic chaos or marital un-bliss.
What if we could access the power of empathy during our dreaded evening homework routine? I try to do this by envisioning what it would feel like if someone stood over my computer at work and pointed out every error on the screen, forcing me to correct it immediately.
Or what about empathy on the sidelines? My first instinct is to judge, avoid and gossip about the screaming parent who berates a child from behind home plate. What would happen if instead I imagined that parent as an insecure, overworked, pro-sport hopeful who was never good enough for his own dad? What would happen if I made friends with him and chatted casually about how polite his son was at school today, giving him something else to think about for at least part of the game?
Like any new exercise routine, the first step to stronger empathy skills is to put on the gear and get started. For the next week or even for a day, let’s try to catch ourselves in moments of angst and stop just long enough to challenge our initial reactions. Experiment with how a calm, empathetic response sounds, looks and feels. Then try and compare that to how a similar stressful situation usually evolves. My guess is that the more we do it, the more natural it will become—until gradually life gets a little bit easier. Our well-trained “six pack” of empathy muscles will help shift our perspective and uplift our outlook, empowering us to connect with each other in more meaningful ways and freeing our spirit to notice more of what is good in the world.