The first thing to recognize is that these people do not seem to actually, physically exist. Everyone deserves it. At some point, everyone needs it. It should be out goal to give it freely and our hope that others do the same. Empathy can be difficult and it is certainly misunderstood. It is also one of the greatest, most important skills you can have towards a kinder, more cooperative world.
So let me begin by saying that I have significant empathetic failings before sidestepping that fact to explain issues important to empathy and how I have planned/will continue to implement them.
Without empathy, true understanding is not possible. It represents the difference between knowing something and getting it. I might know that the victims of violent crimes feel a sense of helplessness or might even experience PTSD or similar symptoms, but without empathy, it is never more than a flat fact. Empathy allows for understanding. Empathy allows us to make the fact human.
This is not to say that empathy is default or that by empathizing you will automatically agree or permanently see from X person’s point of view. You will only be capable of doing so.
Empathy is often seen as a prosocial behavior and if the plethora of blogs, stories, and essays posted daily dealing with empathy are any indication (they are) then you can safely say that the ability to empathize is of central importance to our daily lives.
Empathy tends to breakdown into two components, emotional and cognitive. One without the other can be problematic, so I’d like to think about both in concert.
Emotional empathy is about being able to identify and share the feelings of others, be that your SO, your best friend, your enemy, or a stranger. In theory, all one should need to do to identify and share is first listen, then care. In practice, this is not always the case. Just as every person deserves empathy, every person can be unique in a million different ways pertaining to their interpersonal skills. Personality disorders present some empathic difficulties, but so too do rough conditions in upbringing, political divisions, and the state of one’s life needs being met, to name a few. Listening is the biggie here and listening means more than hearing and judging. It means actively listening. If you’re listening to family talk about something they often experience and relate, maybe you’ve heard this story before. Or maybe you’ve fought recently and that comes to mind. Maybe you think they are approaching a problem or a feeling incorrectly (side note: short of self-harm, do not suppose that you know the correct way to address any feeling). But you (and I, because this is somewhere I fail at times) must stop, because that isn’t listening. It’s judging and it steps into the attempt to empathize and messes up the place. Instead, take the words as they come, place them into context, and dismiss your reactions to them. For now, only listen.
Maybe you are listening, though, and the person is experiencing something difficult to convey or you’re just not getting it. There is a lot of research to indicate that physically mirroring someone can help to place you in their state of mind. Keeping in mind that body language can be just as important to the listener as is your pretense, you can try to mirror their stature, position, and facial expressions to kick start motor neuron imitation and get you a little closer to their state of mind.
Which brings us to the cognitive portion of empathy. If you’re someone who readily understands emotions, perhaps this is where you have difficulties. I know it often is for me. This is the point at which I often step back from the person with whom I should be empathizing and instead consider their feelings from my own POV. I shouldn’t do it and neither should you.
This is a strange point for me because I often find it effortless to empathize with fictional characters or far off/abstract people while I have to make an effort to empathize with the person right in front of me, often a loved one. The issue, I think, may be a mixture of burnout and frame of reference. Burnout because this is a person with whom I engage regularly, while the Other, the character, the person in Australia is in a different part of the world, I don’t know them, and I’m willing to allow for a lot more variance in lifestyle and emotion. The frame of reference follows immediately, because when someone is of the same culture, location, age, perhaps even sex and gender, it can be much easier to think that they see the world much as you do and thus your response might work for them. This presupposes too much, including the idea that you own Theory of Mind is mirrored by theirs. So very much goes into understanding the mind of another and assuming that it is like your own is an almost sure-fire way of missing the mark.
To be sure, these things are neither automatic nor necessarily easy. There is a good deal of research to support a predisposition towards empathy and just as much to assert there is not. We often find gender differences only to turn around and find that we’ve measured the wrong part in emotional response or that we’ve only tested for social, rather than innate, attitudes. It seems the better approach may be empathy as skill, regardless of how well one empathizes to begin with. Perhaps the more intelligent approach is to work actively at empathizing so that, in the best case, you only get better with time and in the worst, you are making progress towards engaging people in a helpful, hopeful, and kind manner.
As with many talks about self-discipline and how we engage with others, I’m reminded of David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College, as related in the short film “This is Water”. If you’ve not seen it, I recommend watching it a few dozen times. It is perhaps one of the best bits of personal improvement advice I’ve ever heard. It comes to mind because Wallace points out how easy and automatically we can suppose the worst of someone. Inside our own minds, it is quite easy to suppose that someone is being a jerk, or inconsiderate, or oblivious. In the example of being stuck behind someone in traffic, he urged the students of the class of 2005 to take a moment to imagine that the person in front of you might be considering far more than you realize: “It’s not impossible that some of these people in SUV’s have been in horrible auto accidents in the past and now find driving so traumatic that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive … Not that that … stuff’s necessarily true: The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t.”
It may seem a stretch in the wrong direction, but Wallace’s point that “[the] only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it” barest a repeat. This is perhaps one of the few capital-T true things about the human condition. It is up to the viewer to perceive as they wish and to do so with consideration of the rest of humanity. You can choose to be empathetic. It is necessary and like many things that are, it isn’t automatic.
What is initially active will become easy and automatic in time. Empathy can be treated as a skill for one to work on until the purposeful actions and thoughts become second-nature. In the meantime, focus on all that is gained in the attempt.