“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” ~ Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
Earlier this week, my fourteen year old daughter was telling me about her day at high school, something I always look forward to at the end of the day during our drive home, and I was filled with pride as she told me about what had happened at lunch.
Lunchtime in a cafeteria is a new experience for my daughter – she used to sit in her classroom during elementary and middle school. Amongst the usual mass of teenagers that fill the cafeteria during lunchtime, she said that on this day, she noticed that one of her friends from the middle school days couldn’t get a seat at the table with his usual crew so he sat at the end of another table, on his own. She said that she saw him sitting there and immediately felt what he must be feeling having to sit alone, so she proceeded to gather up a couple of friends and go sit with him. She could have chosen the easy route, which would be to feel sorry for her friend from a distance, but instead, she connected with him from a vulnerable place.
I gleefully said “that is a perfect example of empathy!” When my kids said “how so?”, I quickly loaded the RSA short with Brené Brown on The Power of Empathy. In this video, one I have watched many times, Brené clearly distinguishes how vastly different empathy is from sympathy. As she says, empathy drives connection and sympathy drives disconnection. Brené outlines 4 characteristics of empathy which include 1) perspective taking, 2) staying out of judgment, 3) recognizing emotion and 4) communicating that emotion to the other person. Empathy is a vulnerable choice as it often requires us to feel with the other person.
Why is empathy so important?
Empathy is important in life in general, but it is extremely important in medicine – it is vital in physician-patient encounters. Some may call it bedside manner, some may call it listening, but when you are sitting in front of your physician, and they are empathic, I would call it ideal healthcare. In life, empathy can involve, but not be limited, to kindness, tolerance, understanding and so many other terms that build connection.
How can empathy be learned?
We are all wired to have empathy, but like anything else, it has to be fostered and strengthened to become an automatic part of us. Two thoughts on fostering and strengthening our empathic abilities include the following:
1) Listen with intent – I like this term ‘radical listening’ used by psychologist Marshall Rosenberg, founder of Non-Violent Communication. This is listening to the max where you are not waiting to interject when someone is speaking and you can even reflect back on what they are saying. As the late Stephen Covey says in the legendary book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, habit #5 is to “Seek first to understand, then be understood”.
Earlier today, I came upon another context of this message in an article that was sent to me from a friend/colleague on Twitter. In this article, The Importance of Being, written by a well-known physician writer Abraham Verghese, he emphasizes the foundation of good patient care – listening and presence. Just ‘being’ with people opens us up to their experience.
2) Observe consciously & curiously – When I was a young girl, family vacations were spent driving to a destination, not on an airplane. This was also long before the days of hand-held entertainment. I can still hear my father encouraging me to look out the window during those drives and take in the sights and scenery. Nowadays, paying such attention is more important than ever, as we can often be buried in our phones and not “see” the people and things around us.
I will continue to use my daughter as an example due to her inherent observational skills. She has always been observant and I always praise this ability of hers. Given my daughter’s attention to others, we have been able to help out some other kids that she has gone to school with. When we pay attention and remain curious about other people, empathy naturally surfaces.
Next time you are at the grocery store, why not start up a conversation with the sales clerk. Even such a brief, interested interaction can touch both people involved.