Can you truly Empathise with someone?

Photo Credit S V

Do you remember the awkward conversation with your colleague who just met with an accident?

You went with all your colleagues to meet her in the hospital.

After the customary handout of oranges, that awkward silence pops up in the room and hits you in the face.

I remember one such situation. I was desperately waiting for someone to start the conversation and break the vexatious silence. The situation was new for me. I had no similar experience as a reference point to rely upon. Unfortunately, most others were also struggling with the same problem.

Somehow, my senior mustered up the courage to start the conversation.

“What happened?

I felt weird. What kind of a question is this? After all, we have come to meet her in the hospital, knowing what happened to her.

Have you experienced this weird feeling when you hear such customary questions?

I was wrong. Surprisingly, My colleague started pouring details of what exactly happened. She spoke as if she was waiting for someone to ask this question. This question helped us to maneuver the situation with ease. A few moments later, we started talking about the office environment, bitched about our bosses, and finally wished her a speedy recovery.

This experience showed me that most of us feel awkward when in such a situation. It can be either meeting a colleague at the hospital or enquiring about the death of someone, or handling an employee going through a divorce.

The question “What happened?” is a great place to start. But that is just a start. However, if you want to keep the conversation flowing in the right direction, you need more. Empathy is what you need.

“Empathy” is the ability to understand and share the feeling of another person. It was introduced in 1909 by Psychologist Edward Titchener into the English language. It was a replication of the German word Einfühlung which means feeling into.

Empathy has two parts. The first part is the ability to understand the feeling of another person. The second part is sharing the same feeling.

Let us take a situation. One of your colleagues has lost her father.

You can understand her loss. But if you have not faced the death of near and dear ones, can you truly feel what she feels?

This Understanding can help you to sympathize with her. But to empathize with her, you need emotions.

The question then arises — whether anyone who has lost a close relative can empathize with her.

The answer, in my opinion, may sound strange- Yes, but not exactly.

Yes, because you know the feeling of losing someone close.

Not exactly, because the degree of your closeness to your relative may differ from her closeness to her father. Any comparison to your situation has the potential of you sounding narcissistic.

Such comparison can also lead to a situation where we tend to downplay her loss. It is a piquant situation.

If you don’t invoke that experience, you will miss empathy. If you overindulge in your experience, you will miss empathy. You have to strike the right balance in invoking your experience and control the desire to overshare the experience.

Our emotional experience in a similar situation may vary depending on many factors.

Let me give an example. There are three friends in their mid- 40’s -A, B, and C. A has just lost his job. B faced a similar situation about a year back. C went through a similar experience almost 10 years back. The level of empathy B can show towards A will be entirely different from that of C.

The reasons for the difference can be surmised as follows:

  1. B’s memory about Job loss situation is relatively fresh in his mind
  2. The situation faced by A and B is more or less the same — same age group and similar commitments when they lost their respective jobs.

C would have almost forgotten the suffering besides the challenges and commitment he would have had at that time would have been much different due to the age factor.

Keeping the above facts, I can safely say that B could empathize with A much better than how C could empathize with A.

That leaves a pertinent question to answer.

How to empathize with a person in a given situation when we did not have a similar experience?

I have listed a few steps based on my experience :

  1. Expand your experience horizon :

We tend to limit our experience horizon to the place or community we belong to. We need to go beyond and expand our experience horizon.

Try to talk to people with different viewpoints without making any effort to prove your point. It will help in expanding your thought process. It will also help you understand how people from varied backgrounds process information.

I have always had a bias towards my community which is “Our community has been the most tolerant and progressive thinking community”. But almost every person from every community thinks the same and I realized it by meeting and interacting with people from different parts of the world.

When you expand your experience horizon, you elevate your understanding of people and this helps in building empathy.

2. Listen :

Listen intently. Listen patiently. It can help in two ways. We can understand the person and the situation better. It will also help us to find something that we can relate to the situation. More importantly, listening with intent establishes a better connection and helps us build empathy. When we met our colleague in the hospital, it was our senior’s listening skills that proved worthy to manage the situation.

3. Focus on the other person :

It is not about you. Not always. When you focus on the other person, you can listen, understand and empathize better.

Marshal B Rosenberg said, “Empathy is a respectful understanding of what others are experiencing”.

Respect their feeling by focussing on them and their experience.

To give an example, if you are listening to an agitated employee, allowing the agitation to catch up with you will ruin the situation. Being aware of your emotions while handling the situation can help you to display empathy better.

Let me get back to the question “Can we Truly Empathise with someone?”.

I am not sure. But we can practice empathy with intention.

Maya Angelou said, “I think we all have empathy. We may not have enough courage to display it”.

We may not show empathy in every situation and to every person. But with deliberate practice, we can gradually expand the horizon and include one more person or one more situation to show our empathy.

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