You’ve surely heard the saying, “You can’t understand someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.” The person who first offered this wisdom is lost to history, but it’s become so ingrained in our vernacular because of the importance empathy has in life.
Because each and every one of us is an individual, with our own unique outlook on life, it can be incredibly easy to disagree; to misunderstand; to offend. Think of a time you were crying, and someone couldn’t seem to wrap their head around how your emotions matched the situation. That alone is enough to make your tears flow harder.
Empathy is truly about trying to understand other people’s experiences and perspectives. If you think about your strengths and weaknesses in this area, you might find it’s very easy for you, or people you know, to subconsciously practice empathy, like when you see a stranger get hurt. You find yourself truly concerned for their well-being. Our egos can make it difficult, however, to see someone else’s feelings as valid when they differ from our own. But just because someone has, for instance, different sensitivities, doesn’t make them any less real, or any less important.
In an overwhelming way, empathy has been devalued in our society in recent years. One example, explains author and child psychologist Michele Borba, is the seismic shift that our culture has undergone. She notes that one of the biggest culprits is technology. “Self-promotion, personal branding, and self-interest at the exclusion of others’ feelings, needs, and concerns,” she argues, is “permeating our culture and slowly eroding our children’s character,” and the outcome is a drop in youth empathy. This only creates peer cruelty, bullying, cheating, the inability to harbour moral reasoning, and a mental health epidemic in young people. And it’s a double-edged sword — the youth become adults, and the downward spiral continues.
So where does one start to fix the problem? Practice, and lots of it. We must not only teach youth to practice empathy, but also lead by example.
Start by listening intently when people speak to you. Even if you don’t agree with what they’re saying, consider the motivation behind it being spoken. Rather than shutting off your brain to the rest of their words and formulating a response, digest all of it.
When you do respond, make sure you take time between the end of their thought and the beginning of yours, so as to respond in a way that truly acknowledges what they said, and not what you were thinking while they said it.
When in a social setting, embrace it. If you’re in the elevator, waiting to board a plane, sitting at a cafe by yourself, try to put your phone down, your book away, and simply absorb the world around you. Empathy is about understanding, and we cannot understand if we never look up and take it all in. Ask yourself how the people around you may be feeling, what they might be thinking. Try to wonder and care about these complete strangers.
It’s also valuable to consider a tense situation you are currently in, or have been in, with someone else. You may associate this situation with feeling hurt and angry, with them having wronged you. You are the victim here. Now, with that knowledge, consider the altercation from that person’s point of view. Think about how you might have made them feel. You may realize that the issue stems from mere differences, not ignorance or hatred.
You can even try practicing internally the opposing viewpoint. This will take you away from your own ego, and put you in the shoes of the other person. Such an exercise will force you to open your mind to the issue at hand and to another perspective on it.
The following video by Devin Clark further dives into why empathy is so important to have in everyday life, and shows how you can improve your own.