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Sympathy Vs. Empathy; How Knowing The Difference Could Save Your Relationships – Part Four

Last week we began examining the seven steps to fostering more empathy, including learning to better identify our own feelings and treating others as they would like to be treated. This week we conclude the series by looking at the last three steps to increasing our empathy, including being more curious and challenging prejudices and finding common ground.


Cultivate curiosity


When we were little children we were all naturally curious but later in life this curiosity tends to fade. Remember that little child in you and do your best to remain curious and open. Ask people questions and learn about their thoughts, opinions, beliefs and feelings. Seek to understand viewpoints different to your own.


Active listening and being open


Active listening is when we really focus on listening to others. It involves reading body language, mirroring body language and repeating what the other has said so they feel heard and understood – this approach also gives others the opportunity to correct you if they meant something different to what you thought.


Be open and share your own story with others. Let yourself be vulnerable. It will make the person you’re speaking to feel safe in sharing with you in turn.


Challenge prejudices and find common ground


I find this last step the most challenging by far. The true test of being an empath is when you can empathize with those who share conflicting viewpoints to you. To be able to imagine how they think and feel and actually understand what drives them and their motivation takes real commitment.


If you do though the benefits are enormous. Imagine understanding your enemies and being able to use such insight to diffuse conflict between you. Imagine how much better you would be able to find a workable compromise if you could see things from their perspective.


This skill can also be used with those you have pre-conceived notions about in order to foster a more compassionate outlook. For example, if I believed every homeless person was a drug addict or alcoholic, I might speak to homeless people and find out their stories. I might imagine how easy it is to lose your home.


I would place myself in a homeless person’s shoes and feel the enormous mental and emotional struggle every day brought. I would understand what leads those homeless to take drugs and drink to manage their desperation and hopelessness, thereby increasing my compassion, whilst also understanding that not every homeless person does this.


Whilst writing this series I realized that although I am empathic, for me there is still much work to do to increase my empathy to the level I would like. I need to try to avoid perspective taking and treat others how they would like to be treated. I need to actively listen more and  work upon being empathic with my enemies. Finally, I need to only offer advice when asked.


I don’t expect to achieve all this overnight, but because I am committed to increase my empathy, I know I will get there. After all, shunning my sympathy in favor of empathy will prevent my relationships with those I love suffering, drawing me closer to them instead of further apart and building greater intimacy. Now that’s worth the investment.


But the rewards are so much greater than that.


If we all unite in increasing our empathy, together we can make this world a more compassionate place. A place where we heal the emotional wounds of loneliness, alienation, anxiety, fear, depression and shame in others, by being empathic. A place where judgment and prejudice is low, where our self-esteem is high and our relationships very strong and rewarding. Now that’s a world I want to live in, how about you?


Further Resources


‘Empathy: Why It Matters and How To Get It’ by Roman Krznaric


This book describes how at our core we are all empathic and examines how a more empathic society benefits the world. Interviewing groundbreaking leaders of various fields the author reveals the six habits of the highly empathic.


‘The Art of Empathy: A Complete Guide To Life’s Most Essential Skill’ by Karla McLaren


A comprehensive how-to guide on how to increase our empathy, complete with chapters on improving family, workplace and intimate relationships.


Stay tuned – next month is RELAUNCH MONTH and will feature a personal article about loss as well as a feature drawing upon Brene Brown’s research on shame, titled ‘Unspoken Truths; How To Break Free From Shame’.


What was your biggest takeaway from this series? How do you believe having greater empathy will impact your life? What one area of developing empathy do you most need to work upon moving forwards? Please share your thoughts in the comments below to gain encouragement, insight and support from our community, we’d love to hear from you.

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