Empathy is a skill that is learned. It is learned with effort and plied to make our lives more meaningful. To get the most of this skill, we need to focus it where it hard to give empathy. Only by giving empathy to those we feel do not deserve it can we become proficient.
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What is Radical Empathy
Remember to walk a mile in his moccasins
And remember the lessons of humanity taught to you by your elders.
We will be known forever by the tracks we leave
In other people’s lives, our kindnesses and generosity.
Judge Softly by Mary T. Lathrap, 1895
Did you ever work with someone you just didn’t like? Maybe, instead of working with them you were put in a situation where you had to talk to someone you didn’t like? Have you ever made a connection with someone you didn’t like?
Today I want to talk about radical empathy. Empathy that crosses the boundaries of liking or even care. It is easy to show empathy to those that we already like. Those whom we are already close to. But showing empathy to those we dislike is much more difficult. I broached this topic lightly in my article about othering. But I want to dive into it here.
Empathy is a Skill
The very first thing I want to talk about is that empathy is a skill. It can, and needs to be, learned. When we practice empathy, we become better at showing it. We become better at giving it. We also have more of it to draw upon.
So, if we look at speaking a foreign language as a skill. We can compare learning a foreign language to learning of empathy. It takes years of practice to master, but you can become situational fluent in days to months. You do not need to know all the ins and outs of a language to ask where the bathroom is, nor do you need to know all of empathy to show empathy to your family.
However, there is more there. There is a rich amount of experience and communication that can be garnered from learning more about empathy. But much like learning a new language will help you do more then find a bathroom, getting a deeper understanding of empathy will help you gain richer experiences with others.
Benefits of Empathy
In an article in Psychology Today one of the benefits of empathy is it reduces stress. But there is more to it than that. Empathy also builds closer relationships and helps us overcome negative emotions. (One of the benefits listed here).
So, if empathy has so many benefits, then how do we learn it? The best way to learn empathy is to give it. And give it to people who you feel don’t deserve it. Now I am talking about real empathy, not just sympathy. Really take in their situation and feel what they might be feeling. Try to understand why their beliefs are correct given what they know. Then try and help them satisfy the actual needs they have that are driving their behavior.
This is what I call radical empathy. It is hard, it is frustrating and enlightening. I fail at more often than I succeed, but when I do succeed, I learn. I learn more about what it means to have empathy. I learn more about the world, and I learn that I am not at the center.
Call to Action
I now ask you to find someone, anyone that you do not like. Spend time trying to empathize with that person. Take an hour or more and really build up real reasons why they are correct in their point of view. Then feel the feelings that they may be feeling. Live a moment in their skin, or if you will walk a mile in their shoes.