Imagine that someone you care very much about asks you to be more empathetic. What would your initial reaction be? Really think about it, imagine yourself in that position, and honestly assess within yourself how you might respond to that.
I think many people would probably immediately be hurt, confused, or quite possibly even angry. How DARE they not see how empathetic I really am?? How could they ask for such a thing? I would say that while these responses are very normal and quite human, they are not empathetic responses. It is probably pretty typical for people to believe they are far more empathetic than they may act in practice. But if someone asks you for more empathy, and your first reaction and instinct is to think about how that makes you feel, I’d argue you’re only confirming their assessment..
Empathy matters in the world we live in. Empathy is one of the core values which allows us to live together in a society with all different personalities and types of people. It’s more than just feeling compassion for others (sympathy), or sorry for them (pity). Empathy requires that you actually do your utmost to try to understand how they’re feeling, and understand how their actions relate to their feelings.
The empathetic person seeks to rationalize that perhaps the person road-raging during rush hour just got fired from his job. Maybe the obnoxious government worker at the department of motor vehicles just found out their mother has cancer. Maybe your bitchy boss’s marriage is falling apart. While there’s not always an identifiable reason for people to behave poorly, there is almost always some reason.
In a world that’s becoming increasingly transactional, remembering that everyone is human, and everyone has a story is a really healthy thing. It’s healthy for you, and it’s healthy for others who interact with you. So from now on when you’re at work and your boss is being a pain, or that co-worker is being annoying, remember there’s likely a story behind it. When more people strive to live with empathy, we all benefit.
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