“Sometimes all a person wants is an empathetic ear; all he or she needs is to talk it out. Just offering a listening ear and an understanding heart for his or her suffering can be a big comfort.” – Roy T. Bennett
Striving to live a mindful life has always involved the art of empathy. Empathy is an important part of being at one with others and for showing kindness and solidarity towards their plights and struggles. The world is a turbulent place right now, with emotions running high, opposing opinions running riot, and many people feeling acute senses of anger and injustice. There is no better, nor more important time to strive towards becoming more empathetic.
Let us begin by defining empathy. Many confuse empathy with sympathy. To be sympathetic is to feel sorry for another, to recognise and acknowledge their plight. However, empathy goes a step further. To be empathetic you must not only see a person’s struggle and feel for them, you must also understand their viewpoint. Empathy helps you to help the other person more effectively, to work with them to find solutions and make them feel like they are not alone.
Although some people are natural empaths, empathy is very much something that can be learnt and developed. Indeed, constructive empathy is a conscious skill and improves with practice. Here are some foundational elements of how to develop your empathetic side…
Listen. Really listen. We are all guilty of waiting for a gap in a conversation to jump in with our views or experiences from time to time. Another habit, in conversation, is to be afraid of silence, of processing time. Really listen to the other person; try to take in all of the information and to consider your response. Do you even need to respond? Would your voice be helpful here or do you just need to give over space to the other person?
2. It’s Not About You
Focus on the plight of the other. This is a conversation about their struggles and their needs. It is all too easy to sidestep into a monologue about how something similar happened to you, ‘oh yeah, it’s like that time when I…’. before you know it you might have spent a while on you, and veered completely off topic. You are here for them. Keep this fact at the front of your mind.
3. Their Shoes
Sometimes you will not agree with the plight or the opinion of the other person. To be empathetic, you must consider their viewpoint. This might mean taking into account their history, their race, their sexuality, their mental health experiences, their family life, their financial situation… there is a lot to consider. Take time to understand why they are feeling the way they are feeling, even if you are not fully able to understand the sensation of their full experience as a person.
4. Try Not to Judge
When we judge someone we close a door. If you have made a snap decision about someone, you have decided not to fully engage with their experience. Try not to form your opinion until you have more information. Which leads us on to…
To be empathetic, you need to understand their situation fully. Ask questions. Learn. What is wrong? Why do they feel this way? What can you do to help them? Not only does this help you to be more helpful, but it demonstrates to the other that you are investing in them, trying to understand their situation. It is as helpful to the content of your response as it is to their feeling safe, open and supported.
6. Be Kind
Empathy is as much about the focus of your presence as it is about the lightness of your touch. Kindness makes all the difference. Not only does a kind approach put the other person at ease and make them feel better, but it also says, ‘don’t worry, you are safe with me’. Putting your charge at ease will make them far more comfortable to share, which will make it easier for you to support them in their struggle.
By Chris Thomson
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