“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” – To Kill a Mockingbird
There is perhaps nothing worse than watching someone suffer.
Feeling another’s pain or absorbing their grief can be unpleasant and distressing. You may feel awkward for not knowing what to say or do, and often, to protect our own vulnerability or ease our discomfort we may turn away. But when we are confronted with moments like these, no matter how unpleasant, there is an opportunity to practice empathy.
But what is empathy? Many people confuse empathy and sympathy because there are many varying definitions. Essentially, empathy is ‘feeling with someone’ and sympathy is ‘feeling sorry for someone’. But empathy is more than this. It involves ‘putting yourself in their shoes’ to imagine what they are feeling, and a genuine concern for their welfare. And it requires an awareness of our emotions, so we have the ability to separate their pain from our discomfort.
According to research by Dr Helen Riess at Harvard Medical School, empathy is dependent on specific parts of our brains that have evolved to form emotional connections with people, alongside inner motivation to care for them.
In essence, we are wired to be empathetic, but it is something that we perhaps need to learn or enhance. And of course, empathy will vary from person to person depending on their life experiences, social, psychological and spiritual perspectives.
We may not be able to empathise with everyone and that’s ok, but it can be strengthened to create a better understanding of your inner world and the environment around you. You can try these tips:
Be fully present: Focus your attention on them without distractions when they are talking.
Eye contact: An appropriate level of eye contact makes people feel seen and improves communication.
Facial expressions: Be mindful of your expressions and keep them soft.
Open body language: Keep your arms and legs uncrossed and face forward to encourage open communication and trust.
Voice control: It is crucial in empathy because a raised tone can come across harshly, whereas a soothing one can make someone feel heard.
Give reassurance: When listening, nod when you understand or place your hand on their arm to show your connection.
Show respect: Listening without interrupting, rejection or making a joke of it. If you feel frustrated, ask for a break.
Clarify: Ensure you have understood what they are saying and ask questions if unsure.
Validate their feelings: Whether you agree with them or not, you can accept their right to feel what they feel.
Even if empathy doesn’t seemingly come naturally to you, allowing yourself to confront uncomfortable situations can help build it for your own wellbeing and deepening your relationship with others. It is pivotal in helping to create a society of respect, understanding and unity.
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