Empathy’s Transformative Power


As a child, I heard the Native American proverb “Never criticize a man until you’ve walked a mile in his moccasins.” How does one walk in another person’s shoes? How can we know what they’ve experienced or how they feel? Why does it matter? It matters because we matter. You and I inhabit this world along with billions of other people, many of whom have difficulty getting along with one another. Empathy is the key component, and it is very powerful.

Many people believe that “my way is better than your way, and you need to think, believe, and do as I do.” Such thinking is the cause of wars and power struggles that prevent us from cohabitating this planet harmoniously.

What is empathy?

Roman Kryznaric, author of Empathy: Why It Matters and How to Get It, defines empathy as “the art of stepping imaginatively into the shoes of another person, understanding their feelings and perspectives, and using that to guide your actions.” He has done extensive research and has lectured on this subject and now advises organizations on ways to employ empathy and conversation to create social change. He believes that the 20th century was the Age of Introspection. It’s time now, he believes, to create a new Age of Outrospection to balance looking inward with looking outward. Research has shown that not only do we create positive change in the world, but we are also happier and healthier when we move outside ourselves and care for others.

empathy's powerEmpathy is about connecting with others and forming meaningful relationships. It starts with synchronization—being in tune with each other. We do this emotionally when we mirror each other’s behavior. What’s referred to as “yawn contagion”—you yawn and I unconsciously do the same—is common in both humans and chimps. Babies mimic our expressions and actions. Empathy deepens when we allow ourselves to feel another’s emotional state (“I feel your pain”). Another aspect of empathy is to consider another’s perspective and offer consolation—even when we do not agree with them.

Empathy is different from sympathy or compassion. Brené Brown, author and professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, writes that “empathy fuels connection, whereas sympathy drives disconnection.” With sympathy, we feel sorry for someone else but don’t feel their pain or understand their perspective. If we are compassionate, we feel another’s emotion, and we may help him or her, but we are not invested in understanding their perspective. But with empathy, we become interested in another person and what they think and feel, and we become more connected.

Brown views empathy as being at one end of a continuum of connection, with shame at the opposite end and vulnerability as the equalizer. Shame and blame close us up and cause disconnection. In stark contrast, an empathic ear offers another the opportunity to be vulnerable yet feel safe in sharing his or her weaknesses. While shame says, “I can’t let you see this,” vulnerability involves courage, compassion, and openness to connection.

Cultivating empathy

When we stop being self-absorbed and become open to and interested in others, we can experience true human connection and find deeper meaning in our own lives. We do this vicariously when we identify with characters in books, movies, plays, etc. But opening ourselves up to real people and being curious about their experiences and desires, especially when they are different from our own, will truly transform us. When I share a part of myself, even reveal some of my own imperfections and vulnerabilities, I open the door to empathic connection.

Empathy through sharing your storyBrown believes storytelling offers great opportunities for empathic connection. It requires us to give attention to others’ feelings and experiences—to listen and hear without judgment. The late Chicago-based author, historian, and broadcast journalist Studs Terkel was a master of storytelling and one who could get people from all walks of life to tell their own stories and in the process reveal deep and sometimes harrowing aspects of their lives. He cautioned, however, “Don’t be an examiner. Be the interested enquirer.”

The imaginative leap

To truly become empathic, we must take the leap of empathizing with all people we encounter—including our enemies. History is fraught with stories of injustices brought by one group against another. One of the healing processes after the mass genocide in Rwanda included bringing small groups of genocide survivors face to face with perpetrators. Such a process provided a safe place for people to do the unfathomable—share feelings, find common ground, and rebuild connections.

Martin Luther King, inspired by Mahatma Gandhi, led protests to influence social change through peaceful demonstrations. Congressman John Lewis joined King in the historic civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965. Attacked by state troopers, Lewis suffered a skull fracture and was one of 58 injured protestors. Prior to the march, the demonstrators were taught philosophies of Gandhi and others. Through role-playing, they learned ways to protect themselves should they be beaten—and to look their antagonists in the eye and convey “I’m human.” Lewis says he holds no hatred toward anyone to this day.

“Empathy fuels connection, whereas sympathy drives disconnection.”

Power of empathy and meditation

Veterans resting in guided meditation

I recently had the privilege to present iRest, a guided relaxation meditation, during a four-day retreat for veterans with Gratitude America. These post-9/11 veterans suffered post-traumatic stress. Each was accompanied by a family member, partner, or close friend. There were many fun bonding activities like kayaking, visiting dolphins, tai chi, and equine therapy. This was interspersed with small group interaction. These were not classic therapy sessions, but rather a relaxing safe space in which vets could listen to each other and share their common challenges in returning to civilian life.

I witnessed transformative marvels during this retreat. A mother who was enlightened by veterans’ stories was then able to restore a loving relationship with her estranged veteran daughter. One couple befriended another couple, who were essentially homeless, and made the commitment to help them find housing and get settled. The beauty of this retreat was that the participants helped each other heal and rebuild resilience during and after the event.

empathy's powerEach time I write this column I try to imagine and empathize with the life challenges of my readers. I consider how my words might evoke some new perception or inspiration. My research constantly enlightens me with new insights and approaches that help me become more empathic in my coaching practice. It’s a gift to be with another and to try to understand their challenges. While I may not feel exactly what they are feeling, I can empathize because I, too, have suffered physical and emotional pain, loss, and fear. I also know the resilience of the human spirit, which is innately empathic and has the potential to connect us all.

In Walden, Henry David Thoreau asked the pertinent question,
“Could a greater miracle take place for us than to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?”

I invite you to attend my free iRest meditations on Sunday morning or Thursday afternoon.

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