One thing any personal development professional or business mogul are likely to agree on: empathy is important to personal satisfaction and professional success.
After making that statement I went out in search of studies touting the positive effects empathy has on one’s life. As someone who has a degree in physics, I’m no stranger to thorough academic research, but here the search results thumped me. There was just such large number of studies conducted, with a wide range of experimental conditions and results.
What did I do? Ignore the studies. I’m of the soft opinion that studies (particularly in realms outside of physics) can be picked, chosen, and taken out of context to make pretty much any argument you like. So I ignored the studies on empathy and asked myself a question: Do I feel happier and more content when I’m being empathetic?
Now I’ll ask you the question.
Do you feel happier and more content when you’re being empathetic?
Surely that’s the only thing that matters? In discussions such as these, listening to your own body’s response is vastly more important than what some study says.
What is empathy?
But what is this thing we call “empathy”? It’s actually a relatively new word in our vocabulary. Looking at Google Books’ Ngram Viewer, usage of the word “empathy” has shot up consistently since the 1950s. This leads me to believe that empathy is actually a relatively new word in our vocabulary.
The concept that empathy encompasses has been around for a long time. At its core, empathy is an awareness of the emotions of others. Note the difference here from sympathy. While sympathy is feeling for the other person, empathy is feeling with them. Empathy requires presence.
Empathy (a core part of compassionate communication) is about emptying our mind and listening with our whole being. When we give someone empathy, we refrain from behaviours which prevent us from being present. We can only do this when we remove all judgements and preconceptions about the other person.
The Chinese philosopher Chuang-Tzu once said:
The hearing that is only in the ears is one thing. The hearing of understanding is another. But the hearing of the spirit is not limited to any one faculty, to the ear or the mind. Hence it demands emptiness of all of the faculties. And when the faculties are empty, the whole being listens. There is then a direct grasp of what is right there before you that can never be heard with the ear or understood with the mind.
Why practice empathy?
In Roman Krznaric’s book Empathy: Why it Matters, and How to Get it, he argues that our brains are wired for empathy and social connection. Despite personally being labelled “an emotionless stone” in the past by ex-girlfriends, I believe empathy is a fundamental part of my humanity.
By practicing empathy, we become grounded in our natural state of compassion, allowing us to build stronger relationships in many aspects of our lives.
So far I’ve emphasised the importance of empathy in our lives; for the benefits it begets both to ourselves and others. What I’m suggesting though, is that most of us need to practice empathy a little more.
When I first started consciously practicing empathy, I had an experience which completely changed my perception of what was possible and the benefits of connecting in this way.
I was talking to my grandmother, who was expressing her concern over an encounter she had in a shopping mall. I interpreted her statements as similar expressions to ones she had made previously, and my default reaction was to palm it off, ignore the underlying emotions, and distract her with a new topic of conversation. I suppose in hindsight, I was afraid to address the emotions and needs behind her message because of what I might find.
In this case, I’d been consciously practicing compassionate communication, so decided to listen for the feelings and needs behind what she was saying. Hearing her concern and a need for community and trust in her and her loved ones security was incredible. I no longer saw her as a “complainer”, but now as another human being expressing her pain. As I listened and reflected back, layer after layer of emotion came out. I was surprised and saddened by how deeply it seemed to run. My suspicion is that it had been a very long time since someone had genuinely listened to her in this way without their own agenda. The result was an outpour of emotion that liberated us both from the baggage of repression – lasting over an hour.
From this experience I had seen the restorative power of empathic communication with a loved one. Just by listening with intention and your whole presence of body and mind, incredible relationships can be solidified or formed. I am also terribly grateful to my grandmother for her honesty and vulnerability in that experience.
In a world where it’s often more convenient and preferable to text people rather than call or meet in person; a world where we scroll through Instagram feeds daily; a world which we are slowly (or perhaps not so slowly) consuming – the need to practice empathy is paramount. Our cultural stories and paradigms influence us in such a subtle and profound way. On the whole, the current story we have does not emphasise and encourage empathy toward one another. Sure, we’re intelligent adults, and we can rationally acknowledge the importance of empathy. But that doesn’t mean our environment supports us in this practice.
I’m suggesting we need to deliberately practice empathic communication, and surround ourselves with loved ones and groups that support us in this practice.
Humans are social animals, and we have a sincere desire to connect emotionally with those around us. Whether it’s exclusively reserved for our most dearest, or for every single person that crosses your path, empathy has a role to play.
Photo is of rocks and the ocean over at La Perouse.