Empathy is a concept that has been at the forefront of my mind recently. To be honest, it is usually somewhere on my mind in some capacity. All personality traits have positives and negatives. My “strength” can often turn into combativeness or forcefulness for example. I use my value of empathy to attempt to control those actions. ( I point out attempt. I do fail) I love empathy, which is an odd thing to say I suppose. I value it highly and believe that a stable and progressive person must have a firm understanding of this concept. Though, it should be understood that empathy is like a muscle, needing to constantly be used and worked in order for it to be strong. Empathy is difficult. It is challenging. Despite that, I think it is time to ponder this concept of empathy, as hard as it may be, and to focus on one of its greatest allies: listening. In my two fields of study the demand to understand empathy was paramount. Without it, you would fail to grasp the significant themes of human interactions our source material dealt with everyday. I was trained to be an empathetic powerhouse. I say this not to brag. Since I didn’t do nearly the amount of work to get me to this place as my mentors did. God bless them. But instead because I want to state that this post comes with considerable thought.
So what is empathy? Often confused with sympathy, empathy is the capacity to share and understand another’s state of mind or emotion. It stems from the German word Einfuhlung which means “in-feeling”. Empathy means to recognize others’ feelings and to be able to participate in the experience of an individual without needing to directly experience it. The last portion of that explanation is the tricky part. How do you understand the experience of another if you have never…well…experienced it? To use a person’s imagination without any basis feels somewhat inauthentic. Well then, how do we do it? Researchers of communication and human interaction have given us six components that will lead to empathy. The geniuses broke it down for us! Thanks geniuses! We all know how much millennials love lists. So have at it below:
1) Emotional Understanding: Understanding the problem or experience from the other persons point of view.
2) Respect: Recognition and full acceptance of the individual as a person. With human feelings such as fear, pain, confusion, love, longing, ect.
3) Authenticity: Honesty in expression of views. In order to demand honesty, we must be willing to give honesty. Risk is for both sides to take.
4) Warmth and Positive recognition: Kindness!
5) Self Exposure: The ability to try and relate to a person through your own experiences.
6) Resolution: Ability to come to an understanding of the person’s feelings.
Ok, so those are the gears. The things that make the complex concept of empathy tick. But at its base what do we use to utilize these components? How do I understand a person’s point of view or experience or how do I recognize a person as a person? The answer: listening. Ahhhh my favorite part of communication. Followed by the close second of silence. Some of you are laughing right now as I am quite the talker. But its true. I love to listen. Mainly because I love to make people feel good and validated. And I love to learn. All of those things stem from listening. Before university I don’t think I realized listening was so important or that it was something that needed to be learned and understood. I thought people just did it. But they don’t. In fact many studies show that in our particular culture we are horrible at listening. Which begs the question, if we are not good at listening, how can we be empathetic? Therefore, we need to listen to others. It is vital. There is a quote by Jiadu Krishnamurti, “So when you are listening to somebody completely and attentively, then you are listening not only to the words, but also to the feelings of what is being conveyed, to the whole of it, not part of it.”
Listening and empathy are important is what I am saying. We all crave it. Which means we should all learn to give it. Of course, most of you know that. Deep down we know the value of these two things. Therefore, why am I thinking about this at all and bothering to point it out in a long blog post that risks making me look like a know it all ass? Well, because while we know it, we are not doing it. As many of you are aware the state of America’s politics on race is boiling over. I am embroiled in this boiling pot whether I want to be or not. A brown lobster, if you will, slowly boiling to death in my own tears. I hope you enjoyed that momentary flourish of drama. Anyway, my survival and happiness depends on the resolution of these issues. My family and my children depend on the reconciliation of these grievances. So here I am pondering. Wondering where the break down is. What has happened? The observation I have made is that we as a society know about empathy but not WHAT it is.
A large group of people are feeling very distraught and afraid at the moment. Me included. The response has been to ask for proof of these feelings or to dismiss the feelings all together. Which has lead to desperation, anger, and in some cases violence. But if we as a culture claim to understand empathy than why is our first response not to listen to these grievances in order to understand the groups pain? Why is it not the acknowledgment of their fear as legitimate simply because they feel it versus the dismissal of this fear by people who have not experienced it themselves? Where is our empathy for these humans? Where is our proof of action that all lives really do matter by showing them the respect of patience, kindness, and empathy? When we do not listen or display empathy we devalue other people often for the sake of our ego or for being right or because we have fear. As much as we do not want to be devalued, we in turn should not devalue others.
The below image is a sign of empathy. 5 police officers were killed in Dallas. The men in front empathize with that pain and that fear. So despite the fact that they may have been profiled by a police officer in their past, which is why they are at the rally in the first place, they are showing strength in empathy by physically protecting the officers. They are willing to sacrifice their own lives so that the men behind them can go home to their families. They are valuing them as humans. They see them as humans not as just a group.
In order to heal from a long history of devaluing the lives of people with dark skin we all need to exercise this kind of love. We need to understand the history of where this pain is coming from. We need to understand the frustration of not being listened to. We need to understand the fear of a difficult job and brutality at the hands of trusted city servants. We need to listen and not dismiss. We need to value life and not paint people as “just” violent or “just” thugs. We need to do this and not expect others to do it first or for us. My first lesson from my mentor when learning how to run seminars and conversations on race was a lesson on listening. She made me list all the reasons why a person might be afraid of me or a conversation on race. I learned to empathize with the enemy. Until my anger subsided and they were the enemy no longer. They were human. Confused and scared humans. I get it. Many others get it. This is not easy. It is not easy to resolve nor is it easy to explain nor is it easy to understand. We get that not all cops are bad and not all dark skinned people are thugs. We get that not all light skinned people are racist. We get it. So now we need to start ACTING like we get it instead of just saying we do. We need to model empathy. For the sake of ourselves and our children.