The playwright George Bernard Shaw disputed the golden rule of “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” when he wrote, “Do NOT do unto others as you would have them do unto you—they might have different tastes.”
By doing so, he exposed a problem we commonly face when dealing with other people—we treat them how we think they should be treated, not how they’d like to be treated.
To do otherwise would require understanding how they feel. And if that sometimes seems impossible to do, that’s because it is. Everyone is unique, and everyone experiences things uniquely.
But that shouldn’t discourage us from trying. The willingness to try to learn about someone else’s experience, to step out of ourselves and try to enter someone else’s world, is the essence of empathy.
Like the other EQ skills, empathy has nothing to do with cognitive ability. To be empathic, all that’s required is being human, knowing how to listen, and having some imagination.
Theresa Wiseman, a nursing scholar, associates the following qualities with empathy:
Perspective-taking: the ability to see things from somebody else’s perspective or to recognize it as their truth;
Suspension of judgment: being able to listen without labeling things as good or bad; and
Acknowledgement: recognizing emotions in other people, and then communicating that.
If you’d like to become more empathic, here’s what can help:
Read more good fiction. Interpreting the thoughts and emotions of complex literary characters isn’t very different from making sense of people in real life. That’s why reading makes us more empathic.
Learn to listen. Listening helps you understand what others are going through and better equips you to offer support. When someone shares with you, let them speak. Don’t judge, don’t offer advice, and don’t interrupt.
Don’t minimize the other person’s pain. Just because it’s hard for you to understand someone else’s pain doesn’t give you the right to minimize it. Author Brené Brown says that an empathic response rarely begins with “at least.” Whenever we say “at least,” we’re trying to “silver line” the other person’s painful experience.
Try perspective-taking. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Pretend you are them for a minute. Try to understand why they think and behave the way they do.
Relate. Try and remember an experience in your own life where you had a similar feeling. Do this only to gain insight into what the person is going through, but focus on their story, not yours.
If you’re looking forward to learning about people skills, I know how you feel. Stay tuned for tomorrow’s episode.
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