Photo by Eye for Ebony on Unsplash
By Catharine Hannay
"Imagination... is the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared... Unlike any other creature on the planet, human beings can learn and understand without having experienced. They can think themselves into other people's places."
J.K. Rowling, Harvard graduation speech
Empathy means 'feeling with,' truly understanding how someone else is feeling. I like to think of it as the first step toward compassion and kindness. It’s a lot easier to be kind when we understand someone else’s point of view and how they might be experiencing the world.
This doesn’t mean we have to understand exactly what their life is like. We can never really get inside someone else’s skin. On the other hand, we all have the same types of feelings. Brené Brown says, “Empathy is connecting to the feeling under the experience, not the experience itself. If you've ever felt grief, disappointment, shame, fear, loneliness, or anger, you're qualified” to help someone who’s suffering. (Dare to Lead)
Here are my favorite ways to practice empathy. The first focuses on people we know well (but maybe not as well as we think we do). The second practice focuses on people we think we don't have anything in common with (but maybe we're more similar than we realize).
Empathy Practice #1
Same-Same, but Different
I love the expression “same-same, but different,” which I learned about from a family member who’s done a lot of traveling in Asia. I like to think about how we’re all same-same, but different. Even our friends and family aren’t exactly like us, and we can avoid a lot of stress and misunderstanding if we think about how we’re alike but how we may have very different perspectives and personalities.
Think about someone close to you, like your best friend or a member of your family. How are you same-same, and how are you different?
- What are at least two things you have in common? (For example, “we both have red hair,” or “we both love old movies.”)
- What is at least one thing about you that’s different? (For example, “I’m shy, but she’s outgoing,” or “I love figure skating, but she’s into tennis.)
- Based on these similarities and differences, what assumptions are you making about this person? Do you know that these assumptions are accurate?
- How might you better support this person, in good times and bad, by trying to empathize with how he or she is actually feeling and what he or she actually needs?
Empathy Practice #2
This is one of my favorite ways to practice empathy and compassion. It started when I was in bed with the flu and the news was full of terrible stories of people suffering from Ebola. I realized that having the flu was maybe one hundredth, one thousandth, or even one millionth as bad as Ebola. It helped keep my own minor illness in perspective, and it also helped me to feel compassion for the victims and their families.
Ever since then, I think about how I’m “one percent similar” to everyone in the world. Our culture, beliefs, or perspective may be different. There may be a lot that we disagree about, but we all have the same basic needs and feelings.
If you try looking at things from someone else’s point of view, you can always find a way that you’re at least one percent similar. This can change the way you think about someone you can’t understand, someone you find annoying, or even someone you really dislike. Once you start looking for what you have in common, you may find that it’s really more like 80% or 90% similar.
Melissa Sutor felt this sense of connection after her sister was diagnosed with cancer when they were both teens. At the hospital, it was the first time she was around kids from different backgrounds and with different religious beliefs.
They were different, but it was so clear to me that we’re all connected. That experience broke down a lot of barriers. It drove my curiosity about other beliefs. I wanted to understand other people and their experiences. That was life changing. (Mindful magazine, August 2018)
Father Greg Boyle has seen former members of rival gangs working together peacefully, once they get to know each other a little bit. They learn to say, “I know we’re not friends, but let’s not be enemies.” Bugsy and Miguel used to be in rival gangs, so they hated each other. When they finally started talking, they discovered they had a lot in common. As Miguel put it, “I guess all I needed to do was meet his insides.” (Boyle, 2017, p. 192-193)
It's important to acknowledge our differences, rather than assuming we share the same perspective. It's also important to acknowledge our similarities and connections, especially to people we might think are worlds apart from us.