Over the years I have heard many descriptions of empathy and distinctions between empathy and sympathy. I recently came across a quote that I really like. “Empathy is about finding echoes of another person in yourself.” Now as you ponder that you will probably realize that it is a mixed bag. If the echoes I find are magnanimous qualities, then I will agree with that statement. However, if the characteristics that I see in the other person are less than desirable, I will tend to put distance in that relationship. It is not unusual for us to become hostile toward those things we don’t like in ourselves that are exhibited by another.
So, I want to suggest two tips that you might try to use in an effort to develop better empathy.
First, you need to be willing to listen. Now you may think, “Well, that’s easy.” But I am talking about more than just sitting and lending an ear. I’m talking about listening for understanding. We often talk about walking a mile in another person’s shoes. However, that is not always possible, as we come from so many differing cultural backgrounds and life experiences. But we can listen with an ear to gain an understanding of how the other person might feel.
Second, we need to make sure that we take care of ourselves. It is difficult to support someone if we lose our own footing. For example, if someone fell off of a cruise ship, it would not make good sense for us to jump in after them. Now we would both be in a no-win predicament. We would do best to stand our ground on deck and throw them a rope with a life preserver.
I encourage you to make an effort today towards empathy taking into consideration these two steps.