Empathy is about standing in someone else’s shoes, feeling with his or her heart, seeing with his or her eyes. Not only is empathy hard to outsource and automate, but it makes the world a better place - Daniel H. Pink, New York Times bestselling author and former speech writer to Al Gore.
Michael travelled every day on the bus to his office. He enjoyed his work but the bus was fairly unreliable and there was often a lot of traffic. When the bus finally arrived at his stop one morning, Michael found himself trapped in a queue behind several elderly people, who, in Michael’s view, took ages to get on to the bus, then ages to find coins in their purse to buy the ticket and then ages to sit down. Michael felt stressed and frustrated about being late. The same thing happened on the journey home and to top it all, when Michael went into the supermarket to buy some bread and milk, the aisles were full of elderly people blocking his way and taking forever to pack their bags.
Michael abandoned his shopping and stormed home. He felt angry with all the old people in the supermarket and on the bus, but then he realised something: he had switched off his compassion and empathy towards vulnerable people.
Michael thought about what it must feel like to struggle on the bus and in the supermarket as an elderly person with poor vision, arthritic hands and stiff knees. By putting himself into the shoes of the elderly, Michael felt empathetic, tolerant and compassionate towards them.
Next time at the supermarket he helped a lady with her basket. Much like Michael, you can practically increase your empathy by following the top tips given below.
- Acknowledge that we can be biased: The first step towards being more empathetic is to acknowledge that it is a human tendency to be biased even though we may not realise it. This will help us see people from a different perspective and make us develop more compassion towards those around us. A very simple way to confront our inner bias is to simply talk to people and understand how they are different from us. Having a simple conversation with a family member or friend to know about how their day was or what they did will help us learn more about them and understand things from their perspective.
- Ask someone how they are doing: A simple act of kindness such as asking someone how they are doing will go a long way in increasing our empathy towards others. You can do this with your best friend, a family member, cashier at the grocery store or your domestic help.
- Listen actively: Most of the time, we listen to people to respond and not to understand them better. It is important to allow the other person to speak without interrupting them. Listen to them with your undivided attention and ask them relevant questions without judging them. This will let them know that they are heard. It’s ok if you don’t have a solution to their problems. Sometimes just being there and lending your ears make all the difference.
- Avoid comparing their problems with yours: It is important to understand that all our problems may not be the same and the ability to tackle challenges differs from one person to another. When someone is in distress and shares their problems or vents out to you, avoid making statements like “My situation was worse” or “Your situation is at least better than mine!”. These statements hinder your ability to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. When you start comparing, the focus shifts from the other person to you and that’s not a sign of being empathetic.
- Volunteering: Volunteering is a great way of putting yourself in the other person’s shoes. It widens your perspective and allows you to understand and feel what somebody is going through because you are interacting with people who may not be as privileged as you are. Join an NGO and be a part of their weekend community service or try teaching a skill to someone you think needs it. You will not only create an impact in their lives but will also start seeing life through their eyes, which in turn will increase your empathy.
Join British Council experts and discuss empathy in a three-hour special workshop on Friday 18 December, 4.00 p.m. to 7.00 p.m. This is part of 'The Well You' series of workshops presented by the British Council in December.