Conflict Resolution

Amp Up Your Empathy

Sandra Prior asked:

There are certain items a woman knows she needs in her wardrobe of life skills: ambition, independence, fearlessness, self-belief, a sense of fun. But she will get more ‘wear’ out of these if she also has empathy – a classic that should never go out of fashion.

Empathy is the ability to understand and share what somebody else is feeling. You hear a woman sobbing on the phone to her ex-boyfriend and recall the ghastly break-up that had you in tears for months. Or you see refugees on TV and, having been robbed and left stranded at Madrid Airport with no money for food, you have an inkling of their fear and desperation.

If you don’t have Time to Acknowledge your own Feelings, How can you Recognize them in Someone Else?

Empathy differs from sympathy (‘Poor  you; I wish you could feel happier’) and compassion (Things are tough for you; you seem to need help’). Simply put, empathy is, ‘I know how you feel’. Psychologists note that we tend to divide others into ‘people like me’ and ‘people different from me’ – sometimes with sinister results, as the recent spate of local attacks against foreigners showed. Empathy helps us transcend superficial differences, possibly reaching the ultimate state of ’empathetic maturity’ where we see all other people, regardless of their gender, social status, education, nationality or age, as being ‘like me’.

So, what’s in it for you? Perhaps the most underrated human trait today, empathy can help you resolve (or even prevent) bust-ups with your man, mother or irritating co-worker, and also have you smiling serenely at aggressive drivers and feeling generally more empowered, more connected to others and more at home in this fast-spinning world.

In Her Shoes

Empathy is an essential component of emotional intelligence. If you’re able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and try to see things from their perspective, the likelihood exists that a peaceful solution may be found during conflict. You don’t have to agree with the other person or know exactly what they’re going through to have empathy for them.

Our Empathy Deficit

Many of us live in a ‘me-me-me’ world, intolerant and judgmental of others. We bristle at the slightest inconvenience, sigh at slow cashiers or vent our rage in banks. This as a growing trend caused by our fast-paced lifestyles in overcrowded cities. We’re so stressed that we lose the time and space to reflect on how we’re feeling. Also, if we feel we’re not being heard, we say nothing. Feelings build up over time and express themselves as, say, road rage. If you don’t have time to acknowledge your own feelings, how can you recognize them in someone else?

Barack Obama told students at Southern New Hampshire University that the first lesson of growing up is this: ‘the world doesn’t revolve around you. There’s a lot of talk in this country about the federal deficit,’ he said. ‘But I think we should talk more about our empathy deficit – the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes; to see the world through those who are different from us – the child who’s hungry, the laid-off steelworker, the immigrant woman cleaning your dorm room.’

Young Americans live in a culture that discourages empathy, he said, pursuing goals such as being rich, thin, famous, safe or entertained – goals that don’t expand you spiritually or improve the world you live in. Broaden your ambit of concern, he encouraged, ‘because it’s only when you hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself that you will realize your true potential – and become full-grown’.

We begin grasping the fundamentals of empathy as young children. Between the ages of four and six, you learn to recognize your own feelings. By the time you’re eight, you understand that you have feelings and so do others: ‘He’s crying because he’s sad. I’ve been sad too.’ In order to recognize emotions in others, it’s important to learn to separate our own emotions into specifics such as ‘I’m sad/ angry/frustrated/scared/jealous’ (instead of merely ‘I feel bad’).

Do we lose our empathy muscle as adults?

Have we become dangerously hardened to the plight of others? We don’t lose the ability to empathize as we grow up but it does get skewed a bit. Studies show that we’re more likely to feel empathy for people who are similar to us in culture and lifestyle, and those we see frequently. It’s far easier to understand someone who is similar to us and to be sensitive to what they’re going through. It takes more effort to get to know someone from a different background and understand their world-view. People tend to fear what they don’t know or understand. Which might explain why racism and xenophobia are burning issues in our multicultural world. We are becoming a society that has sadly moved away from the spirit of ‘Ubuntu’ (humanity towards others; a person is a person through other people).

The Relationship Rescuer

Empathy builds healthy relationships. Besides being the secret ingredient in successful conflict resolution, it gives you a greater sense of self in your interactions with others.

Empathy can make daily life more manageable, cushioning you emotionally from the thoughtless actions of others. Continuous empathy as a lifestyle is the only way to maintain relationships these days. Consistent empathy for people from all walks of life is the key – from your partner to your gardener to the man who smashed into the back of your car. It’s about understanding what led to their reaction or response.

It comes from a belief that everyone on earth is trying their best with what they’ve been given and what experiences are granted to them – even serial murderers have reasons why they do things. That is the empathy we need to strive for.

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