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The Importance of Empathy: 2020 & Beyond

Most of us grew up learning the importance of the “Golden Rule”, which says to treat others the way we want to be treated. However, it seems to be a lot harder to enforce as we get older or when we don’t personally relate to what someone else might be going through.

This is where empathy comes in.

Being empathetic involves being a good listener and believing that people are telling the truth when it comes to their personal experiences. It asks for us to recognize that no matter how different our own experiences are, what another person is going through, is true for them.

I’m still learning about how best to develop and strengthen this quality. But I’ve already learned a few things about how to bring more empathy to those around me and I hope to share these tips with our readers.

As Atticus Finch said in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird:

‘You can never understand someone unless you understand their point of view, climb in that person’s skin, or stand and walk in that person’s shoes”

It’s important to face the gruesome truth of this quote: empathy is not comfortable work. It is far easier to be sympathetic towards others than it is to ‘climb into another’s skin’ and open ourselves up to those vulnerable emotions.

However, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, increasing political tensions, and brutal acts of racism across the world, it’s become increasingly important to practice empathy in our everyday lives.

Although it might seem easy to simply understand what the other person is feeling, empathy requires more effort and thinking. It involves the interpretation of one’s facial expressions, posture, tone, words, and more. To best acknowledge someone’s distress, it is important to connect all the available clues. It is also critical that rather than sharing your own feelings towards someone’s challenges, it is your job to simply listen and support them.

So how can we be there for those around us? How can we become more comfortable in another’s shoes?

Empathy starts with practice, so the next time you have a conversation with a friend or family member who may be feeling down try these tips:

1. Try to change your perspectives

When talking with someone who seems to be going through a tough time, try to imagine what life is like for them. Awareness of someone’s pain can feel overwhelming, but during difficult times, people need to know that someone is there for them. Changing our perspectives asks us to put aside our own preconceived notions, attitudes, and behaviors, and just really listen. This allows us to see and feel the world through the eyes of others, and truly walk in another’s shoes as the saying goes.

2. Recognize your emotions

This means fully acknowledging the emotions that others may be feeling and even talk about them. You don’t need to ask why they are feeling this way, but simply identifying or calling the emotions out by name can be helpful for both parties. This can be something like “it sounds like you are feeling really overwhelmed right now” or “it sounds like you’re in a really stressful position.”  During conversations, try to focus your full and undivided attention towards the other person, so they can feel both heard and understood.

3. Communication is Key

Rather than saying things like “At least …” or minimizing someone’s situation try to communicate that you understand their feelings and believe their experiences. Instead, maybe say things like “It sounds like you’re in a really hard place, would you like to talk more about it?”. This leaves room for an open and healthy dialogue between both parties, which eventually can give you a better understanding of what they are going through. If they choose not to share their situation however, there is nothing wrong with that, it’s still important to validate their decisions.

4. Avoid Judgement

This means being open to what another person might be going through and what they are feeling. It also means refraining from comments that invalidate or belittle their experiences. These can be things like “that’s nothing compared to …” or “you shouldn’t be so upset about …”. When we do say things like this, it is often our attempt to avoid those difficult and sometimes uncomfortable conversations about our emotions. In the case that someone comes to you with a crisis, respect that they trust you with their emotions.

Although empathy might seem like a small concept in today’s conversations regarding structural racism and inequity, being emotionally invested in someone else’s stories and situations can go a long way. Using this as a tool to hear from those who may be different from us allows them to feel fully heard and accepted. In becoming more empathetic, those around us may be more likely to also react in a similar way when we are hurting, creating a full circle of compassion and empathy within our communities.

— Rachael Bailey, Undergraduate Intern