Most people know that exercising is important for overall health, even if they don’t like it. Did you know that exercising empathy is equally important in relationships for understanding each other? First it may be important to really know what empathy IS. The most basic definition is the ability to understand the feelings of another. Most people confuse empathy with sympathy which is essentially feeling FOR another person.
Empathy is being able to put yourself in another’s position, working to see something from their perspective, and understanding what they may feel and why. You don’t have to agree, but you can understand why they feel the way they do, all things considered. Think about how good it is when someone really gets you. Feeling understood connects us to the other person. We have more compassion when we have empathy for another person’s experience and feelings. We are more open to possibilities, solutions and the relationship itself with empathy.
Unfortunately, most of us probably spend more time trying to BE understood than trying to understand another. Empathy requires putting aside our own agenda and listening. Asking questions and really listening to the other person’s experience of a situation is required for understanding. What does the situation mean to the other person? Why is it important or why is it creating certain feelings? After listening, take a deep breath if you need to and imagine their whole experience.
In order to truly have empathy you must remember and connect with the other person’s humanity. This is especially important if you want to learn to be more empathic toward people whom you aren’t close to in daily life. (Yes, you can learn to have more empathy). Remembering that we are all people with feelings and needs and desires in life, much of them the same as each other’s, helps connect us to the humanity in the “other”. Everyone struggles from time to time. Everyone wants good things for their life and their family. Everyone wants to feel a measure of being respected and loved.
Finally, one of the easiest ways to increase your empathy, at least in any given moment, is to turn the situation around in a truly comparable way. Imagine that you were on the receiving end of the behavior or words you might be sending to someone else. How does it feel to you? Is there any reason to believe the other person wouldn’t feel the same or similar?
If necessary, imagine being different in whatever way the other person might be different from you. For example, if you are upset with your child’s behavior imagine that you are the 5 year old or the 14 year old in front of you, in all the ways being that age is different. Now imagine hearing the kinds of words you are tempted to say. Does it change your view or feeling?
Having empathy as you listen to another’s complaints is important too. Instead of getting defensive when your partner complains about picking up after you, picture you being the one walking around the house picking up after them. Would you like it? Would you want that to be different? All of these are ways of exercising empathy. Just like any muscle, you can strengthen it so it grows or you can allow it to wither from disuse. What will you choose?
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