Exercising Empathy

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Empathy goes beyond simply offering a willing ear. It’s about sensing and imagining how others feel in a way that enables us to listen, demonstrate care and build meaningful relationships—all of which foster an atmosphere of trust and respect. It can be challenging to empathize with someone when we don’t know or fully understand their context. Often we can only see signs of what’s going on for the person and we seldom know the whole story.

Equally difficult is empathizing with someone whose context we understand but disapprove of, or whose context appears to clash with our values. When we have only limited information, we are quick to make assumptions. And because our assumptions about others harden over time, breaking out of our own perspectives can be difficult. But what if we could suspend our judgment long enough to consider new information about someone else in a way that reframes our experience of them? Could that reframing lead to the possibility of empathy?

In this brief excerpt from her presentation on The Power of Vulnerability, Brené Brown —author, TED presenter and research professor at the University of Houston—explains the difference between empathy and sympathy.

You might already have a capacity for empathy. But if you don’t, or even if you’re curious to learn more about yourself, take a closer look at your own behavior as it relates to empathy. Here’s an exercise you can do to assess your assumptions and judgments to better understand your proclivity for empathy.

For the next 5 days, keep a daily log of how you feel and react to difficult situations that others in your immediate circle —teammates, friends, members of your family or other colleagues— experience or bring to your attention. As these experiences take place, journal your emotions and reactions. Be sure to write about what you notice. At the end of the 5 days, look at patterns and themes that arise from your interpretation of these situations. What was your most common reaction? What does this tell you about yourself? What will you do now?

“Whenever you feel like criticizing any one…just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”

– F. Scott Fitzgerald

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