Just like Ariana Grande, face masks, and athleisure, empathy seems to be having a moment. It’s pretty much the trendiest thing you can practice right now.
If you’re like us, you’ve been seeing the word “empathy” peppered throughout your go-to websites and in your favorite influencer’s Instagram captions, but you’re not entirely sure what it means. After all, wasn’t it one of those words that your middle school English teachers flagged as being easy to confuse with another word that sounded similar — specifically, sympathy? We definitely had to memorize the differences for vocab quizzes back in the day.
Those vocab quizzes are long gone, and we think everyone could use a refresher on the real definition of empathy. According to our friends at Merriam Webster…
Empathy is the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner
Basically, having the capacity for empathy is being able to effectively relate to what someone else is going through, even if it’s wildly different than anything you’ve ever actually been faced with. And it’s a lot harder than sympathy, because it forces you out of your comfort zone and requires you to really internalize what another person is feeling.
Empathy is tricky, but guess what? We’ve all got it. It’s just a matter of digging deep and embracing it.
Like chocolate cake or vacation, there’s not much to dislike about empathy. Just try and come up with a reason to hate it. Coming up short? We figured. The truth is, though, that while it’s easy to want to commit to practicing more empathy, it’s not always so clear where to start. Here are a few ideas to help you actively embrace empathy more frequently in your day-to-day life.
Listen. The first phase in stepping up your empathy game is being a better listener. How can you try to experience someone else’s perspective if you don’t even know what it is?
Ask strangers how they’re doing. We’re not suggesting that you violate those “stranger danger” instincts — only that you lean further into conversations with Uber drivers, baristas, and others who you come across throughout your routine, but don’t necessarily know very well. When you learn more about people who are very different from you, you’ll find yourself better able to practice empathy with, like, everyone.
Check out new content. The creators of the Empathy Library launched it with the hope of sparking “a global empathy revolution.” Check out this website (billed as “the world’s first online empathy collection”) for lists of recommended books and movies that have the power to increase your personal empathy threshold. Plus, you’ll get to read a good book or watch a good movie in the process!
Try to see a conversation from another perspective. If you’re stuck in a tense moment with a friend, family member, partner, or co-worker, stop. Take a minute to flip the conversation around and examine it from their viewpoint. Maybe their argument is rooted in a challenging situation they’re dealing with, and even if that situation has absolutely nothing to do with you, you can take the high (and empathetic!) road by considering that and adjusting your side accordingly.
Stop asking yes or no questions. If your goal is to learn more about other people so you can see things from their perspective, you’re not going to be successful by only giving them the opportunity to reply with one-word answers. Become a better conversationalist — and a more empathetic human — by asking broader questions of the people in your life, then actually tuning in to their responses!
Resist the urge to talk about yourself. As humans, our instinct is often to engage in conversation with others primarily by relating what they have to say to ourselves. And that reads a heck of a lot more self-centered than empathetic. Bite your tongue next time you feel yourself saying “The same thing happened to me!” or “Let me tell you about a similar thing.” There’s a time and place for swapping notes, but making it your conversational default is not a way to practice empathy.
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