Updated: Dec 3, 2020
Have you noticed that people are relatively quick to get angry lately—more frustrated, anxious, or easily stressed out? Or perhaps you’ve seen people reacting with exhaustion or impatience? With all that’s been going on these past few months, many people are psychologically drained whether they realize it or not.
Everything seems to take much longer to process, to do, to get, to achieve. Then there are the new rules—from wearing masks and staying six-feet apart to right and wrong ways to travel the grocery store aisles. Things we never had to worry about in our lives now seem to dictate our actions.
We don’t feel free to do what we used to do…
…Or safe to do even the simplest things.
People seem to be acting irrationally.
Things seem pretty uncertain.
I’ve been talking a lot about empathy lately—to my family, Aegis Living team, business peers, friends—and we need to be empathic more than ever before. There’s a difference between sympathy and empathy, and understanding the difference can help us get through these trying times.
Empathy vs. Sympathy
While they seem similar on the surface, there are meaningful differences between empathy and sympathy.
Sympathy is mostly about feeling sorrowful about another person’s misfortune. I think of it as a static relationship. We can have sympathy for a person’s loss or problem and express an “I’m sorry,” but, in most cases, we don’t go much deeper. It’s cognitive in nature and keeps a certain distance. On the other hand, empathy, is more about the ability to deeply understand someone else’s feelings as if they were our own—it’s being able to emotionally understand what other people feel, see things from their point of view, and imagine yourself in their place. While we are generally pretty in tune with our own feelings and emotions, understanding someone else’s can be a bit more difficult. The ability to feel empathy allows people to “walk a mile in another’s shoes,” so to speak, and helps us understand the emotions that others are feeling.
For me, being empathetic to another human requires action. We have to actively try and understand their situation—why they are upset or frustrated or tired or afraid—then we have to actively put ourselves in their exact situation.
Becoming More Empathetic
Being empathetic to what someone is going through comes very easily and naturally to some people and not as easy for others. The good news is that studies show that you can train yourself to become more empathetic, whether it comes naturally or not. Empathy is a skill that you can learn and strengthen. Here are a few simple things that you can do to build up your empathy skills:
Listening to people without interrupting. This can be hard sometimes, but everyone likes to fully share their thoughts and feelings.
Pay attention to their body language and other types of nonverbal communication. You’ll pick up on many clues, especially if their verbal communication isn’t very emotional.
Try to understand people, even when you disagree with them.
Ask people questions to learn more about them and their lives.
Imagine yourself in another person’s shoes. (This one can’t be said enough.)
Diving a little deeper, here are two very effective ways to improve your ability to show empathy.
I firmly believe that empathy takes the action of listening. This is because, before you can connect with what someone else is feeling, you have to be able to recognize what that feeling is, and listening is crucial to this.
I believe you must become intentional about listening—and specifically listening for emotion. Make an effort to notice the signals people are giving that can indicate what they are feeling. For example, when a friend calls you and vents about something that’s bothering them, the emotion in their voice is something you can very quickly pick up on. Where it’s more difficult is when conversations are happening in the middle of other distractions, or they’re not speaking with emotional tones.
Something else that can hinder your ability to notice what others are feeling is your own emotions. When you have a conversation and only look at your own feelings and how you can communicate them, you’re likely not paying enough attention to what’s going on with the other person. Making an effort to actively listen can help strengthen your emotional understanding and empathy.
When people feel deep sadness for, say, victims of a natural disaster, they get closer to putting themselves in other people’s shoes. While feeling someone else’s pain may enhance a sense of belonging and understanding, it doesn’t maximize the opportunity to enhance well-being. The advantage of knowing what another person is going through is that you can better identify how you can help in that situation. Empathy lets you understand and feel what someone else is going through without actually being in that tough spot. And this empowers you to do something to help.
Take that next step, and help when you can. Recognize that you can do things, however small, to make a difference in someone else’s life.
Remember, whether you’re working through an issue at work or a disagreement with your spouse, we have to listen more intently, think more deeply, and take action more quickly to show empathy. We’ll get through this crazy 2020 more easily if we all recognize that everyone is struggling with something right now, and practice empathy!
Until next time, Live Well, Live Long!