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How I Discovered the Gift of Empathy – and you Can Too.

Earlier this year I took a class on innovation and design hoping to learn how to think differently. At the beginning of the class I had visions of great innovators and designers - Jobs, Da Vinci, Edison. I was excited to learn what drove their creativity.

As the professor began, he explained that the basis for innovation and design was empathy. What?? My social awareness at work has been helpful, but empathy had always been something reserved for those close to me when they were struggling. This explanation of empathy set me on a path to rediscover the importance of empathy in my day-to-day life. I've since learned that empathy is much broader than relating to a struggling friend. This realization has honestly transformed my relationships and personal well-being.

Compassion for a suffering mother

One of our first tasks in the class was to use empathy at a local hospital to observe our surroundings. Instead of dreaming up the next world changing idea, I found myself in the middle of a hospital sitting in a chair, tasked with doing nothing more than simply observing. As my mind settled into the experience, my first lesson in empathy began while I watched a single mother with her son waiting for an appointment.

The mother was crying and it was clear that she was missing work to be here for her son’s appointment. In my stillness, the pain of this moment was apparent. The mother was late for the appointment, maybe even missing her hourly job to support her young son. As I observed, I felt the pressures of her life, the weight of her responsibility. This experience forced me to realize how many very human experiences escape me on a daily basis. Had it been just any other day, I would likely walk past this woman, not noticing her moment of suffering. Or perhaps I would notice that she was crying, but think nothing of it. This quiet moment fully observing her challenges filled me with compassion as I realized both that she was struggling and why.

As I continued to experience my surroundings at the hospital, I realized that empathy is active observation, it's  listening to the nonverbal human cues all around us. There is joy, pain, and beauty in daily life that is so often overlooked. Most of us retreat from the reality of the raw emotions and struggles around us. Rather than fully taking in the moments at hand, we bury ourselves in our phones, movies, books, and magazines. But I left the hospital that day with a resolve to be more connected to my surroundings.

How to see the world differently

That day at the hospital filled me with a desire to be a more empathetic person. I started this journey by paying more attention to everyone around me. I found myself observing drivers of cars next to me and considering their situations. Fathers heading to work, teenagers out with their friends, pedestrians on the sidewalks. Instead of seeing cars or obstacles, I began to see people.

Once I became conscious of those around me, I began to consider what challenges they might be facing. This test of creativity allows me to see fathers who may be struggling to provide for their families, teenagers who are dealing with very real insecurities, or even just someone running late for their bus. Considering the emotional burdens of the people around me has filled my heart with compassion for absolute strangers. You may find it interesting that I'm making up stories for the lives of people around me, but the truthfulness of these narratives I'm creating is irrelevant. These projected anecdotes are teaching me to think less about myself and more about the humanity around me.

I don’t approach these people to fix their falsified struggles. This empathy exercise builds an awareness. It doesn’t leave me with the responsibility to fix their imagined situations. But it is an important lesson in empathy. Our job is usually not to intervene, but to relate and understand. As I go about building my own relationships, I’ve come to realize that feeling understood is a greater gift than having someone resolve my problems.

Developing empathy for those you love

The people in my life are exceptionally important to me - their successes, their struggles, their well-being. As a result, I spend a lot of time on the phone or in-person trying to build others up and sharing experiences with them. Through these meaningful interactions with friends I’ve discovered a few general principles that have helped me build and maintain deeper connections:

Be proactive:

Being actively interested in someone else's life gives you a lot of credibility as a friend. Making a phone call to catch up or grabbing lunch with someone you care about sets the tone for empathy. It builds trust and safety in the relationship.

Listen:

I have found that one of the truest gifts we can give another human being is our undivided attention. In this world of distractibility, the compassion it takes to truly listen is extremely rare and valuable. I have found that every one of us has deep emotional needs. But sadly, these needs often go unmet, as we disqualify those who lack the patience to first understand before trying to fix problems. Listening is how we begin to qualify as a true confidant.

Listen longer: 

While listening, our innate human desire is to relate and contribute in a conversation. We want to talk! But we often speak too soon, before letting the individual process what they are feeling. Keep listening. Ask a follow up question to show that you understand, but want to understand better. Then keep listening. Give your attention. Your turn to be understood will come, whether in this conversation or in the future.

Validate:

Comments during the listening process such as “I understand,” or “that must have been so hard,” show that you are receiving what is being shared. Another way to validate is to restate what has been said. These brief communications validate, while encouraging additional sharing.

Share: 

Ultimately, empathy involves relating to others, connecting through similar experiences. As your friend or loved one shares their true feelings, be open about your own similar experiences. If they have a pain or a joy, show that you understand by sharing some of your own experiences. Be careful not to hijack the conversation though. The goal of sharing your own experiences is to expose a level of vulnerability in yourself that will create a stronger connection and a safe place for them to continue sharing. Telling long stories after casual listening switches roles and requires the other person to become the empathizer.

Celebrate! 

It’s very important to know that empathizing is not limited to family deaths or heartbreak. Empathy involves connecting around the emotions that we are experiencing at any given time. Some of my favorite times to empathize happen when a friend falls in love, or gets a new job that they are excited about. Empathy is connecting around any human emotions we may be experiencing.

 

Learning more about empathy has also helped me recognize what kinds of relationships I value. When someone can empathize with what I am experiencing, when I feel truly listened to, that person becomes invaluable. Alternatively, when someone does not know how to truly listen, or is always the talking head in the relationship, the relationship becomes less satisfying.

Look outside yourself

Empathy is one of the most transformative attributes we can develop. It will deepen friendships, open our hearts to greater compassion, and do so all while making us better human beings.

The more time passes, the more I realize how interconnected we all are. We each experience deep emotions every day. Amidst such emotion, our tendency may be to look inward, while expecting incredible attentiveness from others. This self centeredness limits our perspective, making our issues seem bigger than they are. When we develop true empathy, we begin to look outside of ourselves, and our challenges are brought into perspective.  

Looking outwardly, we begin to feel truly connected to our surroundings. This connectedness brings deeper understanding and compassion with the world around us, including transforming our relationships with the people we care the most about. Empathy that generates this type of connectedness and awareness is what drives innovation. Truly exploring empathy makes us not only a better friend, but also a better teacher, manager, and citizen of the world.

Questions to consider

How can you see empathy enriching your life?

Is there a relationship you have that would benefit from more empathy?

Do you find yourself most often on the giving or receiving end of empathy? What balance do you need to find to maximize the feeling of connectedness on both sides?

1 reply
  1. Doug Bailey
    Doug Bailey says:

    I enjoyed this blog. Very insightful and emphasized the qualities of empathy we should all strive for.

    In my life, my success at empathy is related to my level of patience / long suffering and my focus without external distractions. When I am too focused on me, I fail at being empathetic.

    Recently I was blessed with the opportunity to attend 14 consecutive weeks of an Addiction Recovery Program. I was able to attend because I was bringing a friend who has been battling an addiction. As I listened to the participants share heart felt feelings and experiences related to their personal battles, my heart was changed. I felt a powerful spiritual impression that these people were loved by Heavenly Father his son Jesus Christ. I felt the power of the Atonement and knew how much we are each loved and blessed each day. My level of empathy for these individuals has grown significantly and I want to help. I look forward to attending each weekly meeting and really enjoy focusing without distraction and even contributing in a small way each week.

    Thanks for sharing Oliver, I have learned from you.

    Doug Bailey

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