If I had to pick only one trait I hope to instill in my children, it’s empathy. It’s on my mind because of this beautiful post by Reg Braythwayt.
Empathy is not seeing the world with your eyes from where someone else is standing, it’s seeing the world with their eyes, from their perspective, coloured with their hopes and fears, their life experience.
Empathy is putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and then overcoming your own thoughts of what you would do in their shoes and imagining what it feels like to be them in their shoes.
You’ll note the unnecessary “u” in “coloured”. Reg is Canadian, but don’t let that stop you from reading the whole post. It’s brief but wonderful.
In fact, it’s so good, part of the point of my blog post is to draw attention to his post. Especially the iconic image in his post that is a powerful illustration of real empathy.
But this reminds me of a scene from an early 2000 television sitcom known for exploring the dark recesses of human psychology, Malcom in the Middle. In an episode entitled Reese Cooks, Reese, an older brother to Malcom, exhibits mild sociopathic tendencies. In an effort to show him more attention,
HeisenbergHal, his dad, signs him up for a cooking class.
Reese discovers he has natural talent at cooking and really takes to the class. The parents are amazed at his transformation until a cooking contest where he ends up sabotaging the other contestants dishes because “It was fun!”
His mom, Lois, and dad then attempt to teach him about empathy.
Why would you want it indeed? It sounds kind of, well, painful. Why would anyone want to be empathetic? How do you explain the benefit to someone who’s not inclined to be empathetic? How do you explain to someone who seems to only look out for his or herself?
It’s in your own best interest to be empathetic.
I don’t mean this in some vague karmic fashion, but in a concrete sense.
It makes for better relationships with others.
It’s hard to carry on meaningful relationships with others when you constantly misunderstand the intentions and motivations of those around you. This applies to your friends, family, and work relationships. You can imagine that being around someone who constantly misinterprets your intentions would lead to unnecessary conflict.
Empathy helps people better understand the mindset of those around them. This helps people address the real issues rather than talking past each other or working towards cross purposes.
It helps you make better choices for your own well being.
Everyone views the world through a lens of their own experience. In effect, our own biases are feeding ourselves misinformation which affects our ability to make decisions. Empathy helps one see the truth of a situation and act accordingly.
Too often, people spend much of their time engaging in behavior that is ultimately not in their long term self interest for an apparent short term gain. Sometimes it’s obvious. It might feel real good to smoke that cigarette, but in the long term you know you’d be better off quitting.
Sometimes it’s more subtle. For example, when a marginalized person speaks out against some abuse they’ve faced, it seems inevitable that there’s a strong backlash from people who, although are not involved in this particular incident in any way, feel a sense of being attacked.
I ascribe this to a lack of empathy. People jump to a conclusion that ascribes the worst motives and demonize others who don’t share the same worldview.
Empathy makes you realize that everybody has their struggles in life and are just trying to get by. People spend their time concerned about their own well-being, not on negatively affecting yours. As a friend once told me, we’re all just squirrels trying to get a nut in this world.
Spending a lot of time demonizing others who don’t conform to your world view leads to a pretty unhealthy existence. This isn’t to say that you must agree with everyone. But that you recognize that the lives of others is not so black and white, much as yours isn’t.
It makes you a more effective person
All too often I see leaders who flip a bozo bit on an employee. Or color their experiences through their own lens. This makes the leader extremely ineffective at motivating people to do their best work. It creates an environment where those who don’t see things the same way as the leader are demoralized, even though they may be doing great work otherwise.
Likewise, I often see employees flip the bozo bit on a leader because of lack of empathy for the challenges and pressures of being a leader. This makes the employee ineffective. It’s hard to influence decisions when you lack basic empathy to the view point you’re arguing against.
Someone truly concerned about their own well being in the long run would see the benefits of empathy.
This isn’t the first time I’ve written about empathy and won’t be the last. You might find my other posts that talk about empathy in various contexts helpful.
- Building an Open Source Community requires empathy where I talk about having empathy for your users as well as a thick skin.
- You don’t need a thick skin where I contradict myself and suggest maybe you don’t need a thick skin.
- Reflective Parenting where I talk about empathy’s role in parenting.