Empathy. We’ve all heard the word but do we really know what it means? We know it’s good to be empathetic, but how can one truly be an empathetic person?
Greater Good Magazine from Berkeley describes Empathy as,
“the ability to sense other people’s emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling.”
When I read this I was confused. I always thought of empathy as knowing the right thing to say and the best way to help people. It turns out that empathy is not about being a fix-er and instead about making people feel heard and through that listening, validating their struggle.
Listening to somebody and trying to remain judgment free is an incredibly difficult task and requires years of practice to fully master. After some thinking about the topic I wondered if I would ever be able to be judgment free when I always was the harshest judge of myself.
I decided to be a little more introspective and see where I needed to fix myself before I could hear out others by playing an empathetic question game created by Sub Rosa,
As seen above my questions were “What is the biggest sacrifice you’ve made?” and “When does bravery become foolhardy?” These questions completely caught me by surprise and it took me a moment to gather my thoughts. I never thought that being an empathetic person would require such a level of honesty with myself. Being completely candid is something I struggle a lot with so facing it head on like this was certainly a challenge.
I knew that before I could be an empathetic person with other people I first had to be an empathetic person with myself. Seeing as I was so obviously stumped with two simple questions I decided to try out my empathetic skills on a problem of my own to really try it out first hand.
I decided to tackle the problem of a recent phone conversation I had with my mother. I had been explaining to her that my internship boss had commissioned me to put together a photography book for her and I would be getting paid $35 dollars for it. In response my mother simply said, “you should have asked for more money” and changed the conversation. I was hurt by this and didn’t understand why my mother was not more interested in this project I was really excited about.
After doing an empathy map regarding the issue I came to a few conclusions. Initially I thought that my mom was disappointed in me for not asking for more money and I assumed that she thought I was being naïve when in reality I had carefully calculated my rate. As a result of the mind map I was able to reevaluate my knee jerk reaction and see things from my mom’s perspective. In my mom’s eyes she has never met my boss that commissioned me so she does not know how insistent she was on letting me choose my own rate and willing to pay whatever I said. In addition to worrying that my boss was taking advantage of me, she also wanted me to be paid enough that money wouldn’t be a problem for me and I would be able to take care of myself. After thinking about it from a new perspective any feelings of anger I had from the beginning had disappeared and I understood where my mom was coming from.
Empathy is difficult and takes a lot of practice. However that just means that we should be more aware of being empathetic to each other and trying our hardest. The exercise I did with the conversation my mom and I had was eye opening. Taking a step back and placing yourself in someone else’s shoes can really change the way you see things.