In its simplest form, empathy is an awareness or general sense of the emotions of other people. It is the ability to understand what others are feeling and imagine what they may be experiencing. Like any other ability we possess, we must develop and strengthen our ability to empathize through practice. But before we talk about how to strengthen our empathy muscle, let’s shatter three of the top misperceptions people have about empathy.
Misconception: Empathy requires you to take on the other person’s beliefs and values.
Truth: Empathy is understanding why another person believes what they believe and values what they value, even if it’s different from your own.
Misconception: Empathy makes you weak.
Truth: Empathy takes courage to acknowledge and sit with your own difficult feelings so that you can better understand and connect with those around you.
Misconception: Empathy doesn’t belong at work.
Truth: Practicing empathy in the workplace leads to clear and respectful communication, which decreases conflict and strengthens relationships.
What Does Empathy Mean to You?
Now that we’ve clarified empathy a bit, it’s important to figure out what empathy means to you. To begin, take a moment to think about your first memory of feeling understood by another person. What did that feel like? Now, think about your first memory of understanding another person’s feelings even though you didn’t have a shared experience. What did that feel like? Is empathy something you practice today, and if so, how does it impact you both positively and negatively? And finally, when you think of empathy, what comes to mind? Write your thoughts down.
Now, let’s dig a little deeper.
Review the thoughts you made note of and evaluate how your view of empathy was developed. Did you grow up with an abundance or absence of empathy and how do you think that’s affected your view of empathy today?
So, are you ready and willing to practice empathy on a regular basis? Then let’s get started.
Stretching Your Muscle
Within your own bubble, begin to pay daily attention to opportunities to offer empathy—to truly listen for understanding and check your judgment at the door. When the opportunities arise, are you offering empathy? If not, make more of an effort. Be sure to pay attention to the moments that you seek (yes, whether you realize it or not, you seek to be understood) and receive empathy. How does that feel?
Keep practicing! Eventually, it will feel more natural.
When you’re ready to stretch your empathy muscle and develop your awareness of perspectives and experiences beyond your bubble, here are a few ways to accomplish that:
- Read fiction. Through fiction, we can experience the world as another gender, ethnicity, culture, sexuality, profession, age, and time period.
- Watch documentaries that explore diverse cultures.
- Spend time in unfamiliar environments: attend a festival that celebrates a culture different from yours or a faith service different from yours.
When you engage in these activities with a desire to be more empathetic, you will develop greater levels of empathy over time.
Developing and strengthening your empathy muscle is a lifelong endeavor and these are just a few tips to get you started on your journey.
Build more empathy muscle: Become an empathy engineer.