Empathy is defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Sounds simple, right? In fact, 98% of the population can empathize with others so yes, this is a fairly easy was of connecting with others. But what does this mean, really?
To really understand empathy, you need to know that there are two components to empathy:
Emotional empathy is the ability to share another’s emotions.
Cognitive empathy is the ability to understand another’s emotions
It is the integration of these two components that gives us the depth of emotion that allows us a greater connection to others. Increasing a connection with those that have differing beliefs than we do can (theoretically) shift the energy away from winning into a healthier outlook about our future.
Why is this important? Our nation is struggling to find connection and choosing sides in a never-ending bid for power. But how necessary is this? What would it be like if every individual on the planet made the decision to increase empathy for the “other side”? Kind of far-fetched, I know. There are so many factors that complicate this statement including (especially?) racial injustice. But in the words of George Bush in 2016 at a memorial service for 5 police officers who lost their lives in Dallas, “At our best, we practice empathy, imagining ourselves in the lives and circumstances of others. This is the bridge across our nation’s deepest divisions.” Empathy as a bridge – a concept that I can certainly get behind.
So each of us can take up this mantle from the many wise people that came before us. Some ways to do this:
Radical listening: Take on a growth mindset. Listen to a person who is different from you with authenticity and curiosity. Ask questions to truly understand their viewpoint. Avoid judging or falling victim to confirmation bias, a way of interpreting new evidence as support for one’s own point of view.
Search for ways that you’re similar rather than ways that you’re different. In fact, there is a theory that two strangers are within 6 degrees of separation of one another. And if we tend to surround ourselves with those that are most like us, you might be surprised and pleased at what you learn about this person that you thought was so very different from you.
Read fiction as a way of putting yourself into another person’s shoes. I personally love fiction and find that a good writer will flesh out the characters in a way that make you feel with/for them. What a great way to delve into the mind and spirit of someone without risk!