Empathy - A Gateway For Change

The School Of Life led a dynamic panel last night on Empathy In Australia, where many critical topics we face, such as the refugee crisis, global conflict, violence in our homes, internet trolls, and the rise of individualism in western culture, were discussed to investigate how empathic behaviour can have an impact on our society.

However while they were dealing with the bigger issues, it also lead us down a path of exploring how empathy can have a significant effect on our own daily lives, and the lives of people around us.  That we can't just leave it up to our political leaders to create social change.

What is Empathy?

Empathy is being able to see the world through someone else's eyes, putting yourself in their shoes and imagining their perspective.

This is not to be confused with sympathy, or pity, which is the act of "feeling sorry" for someone; in fact when you're feeling sympathy, it is actually often about your own feelings, and your point of view of the situation.  Likewise few people like to feel pitied, no matter what their circumstance. 

Whereas empathy is the cognitive awareness to appreciate another persons experience, to connect respectfully, with curiosity, and without judgement, including their feelings, needs and desires.

What can we do in our own lives to create more empathy within our society?

Roman Krznaric, our host, and one of Britain's leading philosophers on social change, gave an interesting example in his own life.

He walked passed a homeless man every day for months.  One day he finally stopped and began to talk to him, and it turned out he was an Oxford scholar in philosophy like himself, and they bonded over Aristotle and peperoni pizza.  And while the exact circumstances weren't revealed as to why he ended up on the streets, it just shows that we can't always judge a book by its cover.

As life often does, it holds a mirror up to ourselves of how we can do better.  After a long day yesterday, I squeezed into a seat next to a sweet young Asian guy.  He was very chatty, easy to laugh, and worked at a local bank, opening and closing accounts.  I am embarrassed to admit that as sweet as he was, I shut down a little thinking I really don't have much in common with you, rather than fully engaging. 

Part way through the event, we were asked to discuss with the person beside us about how we had experienced empathy, or lack of it, in our own lives.  My instinct was to turn to the girl who seemed very similar to myself sitting on my other side, however as things turned out, I ended up speaking to him. 

He revealed that he had suffered depression for two years, most of that time unable to leave the house, and didn't feel like he had the support of friends around him; that he kept waiting for someone to reach out to him, but that he never received that experience.  Although he appeared bubbly and interested in others, that there was really no one in his life that he felt he could have a deeper connection, or conversation with. 

Although I haven't been a sufferer of extreme depression, in other circumstances when I was ill, and when moving countries several times, even though I had many kind and supportive people around me, there were times that I was incredibly isolated, so I could relate and appreciate his experiences.  There was an immediate connection between us that I wouldn't have expected. 

We are all human, having a human experience, and empathy is the cornerstone of our relationships.  Seeing each other as equals, no matter what race, gender, sexuality or social status is a gateway to greater understanding, compassionate action and societal change.

If we hadn't been given this encouragement to delve deeper, I would have never have discovered the wonderful qualities this young guy had, appreciated his difficulties, and hopefully through our continued discussion, helped him think about ways he could approach life differently to form new friendships. 

Likewise for me, being able to have that connection, even when initially I may have been resistant, was incredibly rewarding, and an experience I will not forget anytime soon.

How can we increase empathy in our daily lives?

Listen, and most importantly hear others.  This can be to people we don't know very well, or our partners, friends and family.  We are often quick to jump into "I know how you feel", when actually we don't, sometimes reacting with advice that might not be relevant, or could even seem unsupportive.  Instead we can approach it by asking, "Tell me how it feels?".  The way something may have effected them, may be totally different to how you would feel in a situation, so we need to take the time to really see it from their perspective, rather than our own.

Change the channel.  We are often drawn into watching or reading media that relates to our own circumstances.   So watch or read something different.  As one of our panellists suggested tune into the indigenous channel for one week to see their experience in life.  Or another panellist encouraged us to read opinion pieces from people whose views differ from our own.  At the end of the day you may or may not agree with what they have to say, but you can still have a respectful understanding of their point of view.

Talk to a stranger.  As I learnt last night talking to someone out of your comfort zone can bring great rewards and expansion.  As Roman suggested, talk to one person, once a week that you would never normally speak to.... but not about the weather!  What are their values?  What affects them in life?  Expand your curiosity as to what really matters to them, and what their needs are.

It does take courage to have empathy, there can often be fear around relating more intimately to another person, especially a stranger; but it's also a choice we have.  It can break down barriers, and give us a more enriched life for having taken the time to have more understanding, compassion and tolerance.  And the more we can do it on a grass roots level, rather than be part of the problems in this world, we can be a part of the solution.

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