What it means: The ability to understand and share the feelings of another.
Why it matters: When it becomes common behavior to dismiss others as too uneducated or immature to have opinions of consequence, civilization becomes a matter of “might makes right.” One of two unpleasant alternatives follows: one group seizes power and others are treated as second-class citizens undeserving of respect; or equally matched groups become involved in constant conflict. Either way, people get hurt and lose chances to learn from different perspectives.
Schools and families, no less than societies, can do themselves monumental damage by belittling the feelings of others. The practice of empathy is both preventative and curative: when we reach out to others and genuinely try to understand why they think as they do, their human dignity is preserved and our minds are opened to new horizons.
What it ISN’T:
• Pitying others for their suffering or, worse, for their presumed lack of understanding. Pity carries an undertone of condescension; empathy recognizes the other party as an equal.
• Just being sympathetic. Sympathy, while less demoralizing than pity, still implies feeling sorry for (and thus superior to) somebody. It also is the lazy way out; it demands nothing from the sympathizer beyond a quick kind word and a squeeze of the shoulder, after which one can feel absolved of any duty to deeper understanding or anything else to help remedy the problem. As one classic writer noted: “Suppose you see a brother or sister who has no food or clothing, and you say, ‘Good-bye and have a good day; stay warm and eat well’—but then you don’t give that person any food or clothing. What good does that do?” (James 2:15–16, Holy Bible, New Living Translation).
• Just trying to solve others’ problems. There’s certainly nothing wrong with offering “food and clothing” for the immediate need—but as every therapist knows, the empathy that best produces lasting results is the kind that encourages people to develop their own solutions to their own problems.
What it IS:
• Allowing someone to cry on your shoulder without ordering them to “cheer up.”
• Encouraging others to talk about the unique aspects of their own feelings.
• Listening more than you talk. The person who immediately says “I know just how you feel” and launches into a lengthy anecdote about her own experience, or the one who can’t wait to tell the other party exactly how to remedy the situation, is more a nuisance than a help.
• Doing unto others not necessarily as you would have them do unto you, but as they would have you do unto them. If someone recoils from a friendly hug or tenses visibly as you start down a certain conversational path, respect their wishes and back off. However silly it seems to you, empathy knows that forcing your side wins no one over.