empathyHealing the divides in our country requires us to practice empathy.  Simply put, empathy is trying to understand another person’s feelings.  According to Merriam-Webster, sympathy implies sharing (or having the capacity to share) the feelings of another, while empathy tends to be used to mean imagining, or having the capacity to imagine, feelings that we do not actually have.   

 If I have had a divorce, for instance, it is easy to imagine the feelings of another who is going through marital issues (sympathy).  However, if I’ve never been in that situation, conjuring up that emotional state may not be so simple (empathy).

 We must develop empathy before we move to compassion.  Compassion refers to both having empathy and the desire to mitigate the pain.  As the year unfolds, how do we cultivate empathy for those who are different from us, so we can move to compassion?  A few suggestions follow:

 When we are in a one-on-one situation:

  • Suspend judgment. Don’t judge until you know the person better.
  • Listen.
  • Ask questions if you think something is wrong.
  • Ask about feelings.
  • Show concern.
  • Pay attention to the needs of others.

 When listening, follow these tips:

  • Reflect the speaker’s feelings.   That must have been a terrible experience.      
  • Ask for clarification using “I” phrases.   I’m not sure I understand.  Not You’re not making any sense.
  • Use eye contact.
  • Show interest through body language.
  • Don’t plan rebuttals.
  • Don’t jump to conclusions.
  • Give the person your undivided attention.
  • Don’t interrupt or impose your solutions.
  • Summarize what you believe the person is saying.

Often, we are not in a position to speak with individuals who are different from us.  We can still develop empathy by reading or watching programs about their experiences.  My next novel involves a character whose mother is mixed race African American and Korean.  Until I read an anthology of stories by these individuals, I never realized the pain and suffering they endured.      

 Lastly, if you are in a position to ease someone’s pain, do so.  There’s quite a bit of hurt in the world right now, and we can all use some tender loving care.