Empathy

Empathy

Have you ever noticed how much people can be jerks sometimes? They are rude, disrespectful, arrogant, judgemental and lazy. Why do people behave in such a difficult way? They pick fights, they are rude, insensitive to me, it’s almost like People are doing this deliberately because they just know that it’s pushing my buttons.

This person has it in for me. They are acting strangely and in a way that is deliberately offensive.

They make me so mad.

What I also hate is the way I make other people sound when I’m describing a conversation with them. I hate that tone of voice I use when I’m imitating what they said to me in the conversation. It doesn’t matter how they actually sound in real life, or especially how they actually sounded when they were talking to me. What’s important is that is that when I repeat back the conversation to someone else I will make sure to put on a fake, high pitched (possibly nasal) accent to give the impression that they were obviously being incredibly rude.

It annoys me that other people have so little empathy for the way I feel. They don’t seem to understand how important my feelings are in the conversation, or in fact that they are the most important thing in every conversation.

It amazes me that other people don’t realise this and deliberately provoke me. After all, at the end of the day it is all about me.

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Empathy or the lack of it is one of those issues that has had somewhat of a resurgence in the last few years. Mostly because it’s been demanded that people should empathise with some areas of society and not with others, depending on the political situation at the time.

How do we teach our children to empathise with others, especially in a culture that seems to be becoming increasingly more narcissistic and self-focused every year?

One of the things about empathy is that it is actually a very practical and useful skill. Why does that person at work act so strange? Why are they so emotional and hard to get along with? Why do they have angry outbursts? Why are they so opinionated?

Having empathy doesn’t necessarily mean that you are a pushover or even that you have to be especially close to everyone (even that creepy guy who never seems to wash his hair). What it does give you is a certain level of insight to others that reaches beyond simple labelling.

One of the issues with school and also with society as we grow up is that we are taught on one hand that we shouldn’t just label people, yet at the same time it is done almost automatically as part of our system of education. In school we are taught labels in the same way that we are taught how to think about them and what order to put them in, in the general hierarchy of things.

The interesting thing about empathy is that it’s a skill that can be learned easily even though it a hard thing to do.

And it is hard to do. It is hard to see beyond our own perceptions and question our assumptions, because our assumptions are so pervasive in our minds. After all, surely the way the person is acting towards us demonstrates what they are like as a person. That is the only thing that we can use to determine what they are like, and isn’t it true that you shouldn’t just trust what people say but watch what they do to find out what they are really like?

Yes that’s true. People will do what they believe is right and will follow a course of action that they perceive is logical. People always do things for a reason, even if it’s a reason that they would rather not admit to, or even if the reason is simply, “I just felt like it.” The question is, why?

Understanding how people think, not just what they feel but how they logically put things together provides insight not just into their actions, but why they chose those behaviours, and why they think those behaviours are logical to get what they want.

Why do we think that the behaviours we choose are appropriate to get us what we want? Do you think that you have to behave in a certain way? That the world dictates your behaviour? If that is the case then do you think that other people also feel that they must behave the way they do in order to achieve success? And if that is true, then why the difference in behaviours between us?

The essence of empathy is not just to feel what others are feeling but to understand how people make sense of the world around them and to build on that understanding to be able to work with them.

There is an old idea that human society is not actually based on reality, it’s based on the perception of reality. The values that we place on things (like houses, cars, works of art, etc.) are only valuable because we all agree that they are. If we all agreed that certain values such as friends and family were more important and respected than money and profit, then society would have to shift in that way to accommodate that view and our decisions and behaviour would shift accordingly.

What is the most valuable thing to you? What do you work for? Is it respect? Love? Honour? Money? Freedom? Or even just the promise of those things?

More importantly, what does the other person value? It may not be the same things or even the things that they say.

Or it may be exactly the same things that you value, but the ways they seek to get them may be totally different and put you into competition.

At the end of the day though it is incredibly hard to get out of our own heads and try to see how and why someone might be feeling and acting in a way that seems totally alien to us. It takes a high degree of emotional intelligence as well as well as a willingness to suspend our “logical”, “common sense”  view of the world and try to truly understand another on their own terms and not on the terms (or just the labels) that we place on them.

Labelling people is easy and as soon as we label or define people then our thinking about them stops. We need to be willing to go beyond what we think and even what others tell us to find out how the world works through someone else’s eyes.

That’s something I wish I was taught at school.


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