If you’re wondering why the world seems to be tearing itself apart, the answer is simple: lack of empathy.
Empathy is the art of experiencing the feelings and the worldview of another as if it were your own, without losing that “as if” quality. Empathy is when your friend is angry at their boss and you can stand with them in their anger, and feel it with them, without trying to fix it or give advice. Empathy is when your spouse says something hurtful, and instead of getting angry at them, you understand and can feel the fear and sadness behind their anger. Empathy is when you encounter someone supporting a political candidate you detest, and instead of judging them, you stand in their shoes and experience their anger, fear, anxieties, and worries such that you see their full humanity.
Empathy is the art of recognizing and experiencing the full humanity of the other.
When we perceive others as opposed to our own beliefs, desires, or needs we quickly construct an enemy image out of them. “My friend is such an ungrateful employee.” “My spouse is inconsiderate and doesn’t love me.” “That person wants to elect a monster to president; they must have no morals and no empathy for anyone else!” Our enemy images of the other reduce their identity to one negative aspect.
So how do we engage in this art of empathy?
I’ll give two pieces of advice: stop thinking & start feeling, and ask introspective questions.
Stop thinking about all the ways this person is wrong. To stop, you first have to notice and label your thoughts as just that, thoughts. Take a deep breath, “I know I’m judging my friend as whining and ungrateful”…”I’m telling myself a story that my partner doesn’t love me”…”I’m labeling this person as an idiot and heartless because of the candidate they’re supporting.”
Awareness is always the first step. And once we become aware of the judgments in our own head, we need to shift into feeling. Feeling works completely differently from thinking. Thinking is competitive; it seeks out truth and false, right and wrong. Feeling is mutual; it seeks out what is going on in me, and what is going on in them.
For small situations maybe we just need to start feeling into their world: “Okay, so if I don’t judge my friend as whiny, what might they be feeling? Maybe angry because she doesn’t feel respected or recognized by her boss. Maybe sad because she wants a healthier work environment.” But for bigger situations we might have to begin by feeling into our world first, and then theirs: “Wow, I feel really scared and terrified of their candidate. I’m really scared that my quality of life and the quality of life of my fellow citizens will suffer under their presidency. I wonder if they feel that same fear about the candidate I support.”
And here is where my second piece of advice comes in: ask introspective questions. If you’ve made the shift from thinking to feeling, and you have some guesses as to what might be going on inside the other person, don’t presume you’ve got them figured out. Ask them! Ask “are you feeling hopeless because you want a better work environment, but don’t know how to get it?” Ask “did you say that to me because you’re angry and hurt and you want me to see that I’ve let you down in some way?” Ask “are you supporting that candidate because you really want to feel safe, and the thought of the other candidate getting elected cause you fear?” Don’t presume you have the other person figured out and proceed to give advice. Seek to make sure you understand, and the only person who can tell you if you do understand them is that person themselves.
If we practice the art of empathy, then we don’t have to resort to judging and labeling others as bad. If we practice the art of empathy, we can build bonds of trust and respect across lines of difference.
If we practice the art of empathy, we heal even the deepest wounds and divisions.