What we’re getting wrong about empathy

When we’re little, we’re told that empathy is about “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.” Nobody ever explains that this isn’t supposed to be taken literally. Here’s the problem with that tired old approach, and a better way to build empathy and compassion for others.

Empathy has emerged as one of this year’s shiny buzzwords, particularly in the marketing world. Yet, for some reason, many people I speak to on the subject don’t seem to understand what it really means. That’s a problem.
So, let’s talk about it.

“Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes” is a good way for young children to get acquainted with the general concept of empathy. While learning about autonomy and choices about their own behavior, most kids need to occasionally imagine scenarios in which they literally trade places with another person, whether it’s their equally tiny friend who is upset about a snatched toy or their incredibly tired mama at the end of a challenging day. However, this approach to empathy isn’t sustainable into adulthood. It’s simply Empathy 101.

Rather than trying to connect with someone else’s experience, early students of empathy try to imagine themselves being inserted in that person’s life, in their role, in their identity. When they fail to fully achieve that goal, they conclude that they just can’t understand, and often wash their hands of the issue. You’ve probably even heard people say, “I can sympathize , but I can’t empathize .”

Can’t? Or won’t? All too often, people fall short of empathy because they don’t understand how to achieve it, or decide that it’s too much work, and they give up. That’s a mistake, because empathy is worth the effort .

I used to think that, in order to become adept at true empathy and compassion, we had to look at a slightly larger picture. After some careful consideration, and after witnessing many disastrous social media conversations over the past year, I have a new suggestion: ignore the big picture and look at the barest bones of the details.

That is, forget about your imagination and stick to what you know. Every human being — every single adult — has a litany of personal experiences from which to draw more than enough information to conjure up a little empathy, if they want to. And it’s actually really easy to do.

With a few small tweaks, any emotional being (i.e. you) can learn to achieve empathy with a person whose life looks very different from your own. Let’s take a look at the person on the snowy bluff in the photo above. For the sake of this example, he’s a 20-something Asian cis male who has just arrived in the United States for the first time to attend a university. He’s pre-med. He’s really into cycling, and hopes to find a girlfriend who won’t distract him from his goal of become a heart surgeon.

I am none of those things. I can’t imagine what it would be like to live that life, and inserting myself — with all my personal identifiers and contextual experiences — into his world would make no sense.

But if he told me he was afraid of his neighbor’s loud, barking dog who repeatedly lunged at him while he biked past, I could feel empathy for his fear, even though I am not afraid of dogs.

If he told me he was homesick and craved the company of his many siblings, I could feel empathy for his loneliness, even though I was a military brat with no hometown who didn’t have that sort of close relationship with my family.

If he told me he was feeling stressed about his upcoming biology exam, I could feel empathy for his emotional state, even though I never took biology in college.

That’s because I, too, have experienced the emotions he has communicated to me: fear, loneliness, stress. If he related to me a joyful tale, I could connect with that emotion as well. And this is how empathy is born. It’s much less about understanding the details of the events that happened in someone’s life, and much more about understanding the impact or impression it had on them.

The next time you’re charged with finding empathy — whether for a friend, a stranger, or a faceless marketing audience — just keep your focus on the other party’s feelings and stop thinking about yourself so darn much.

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