When I was a teacher, I would sometimes start a class meeting by holding up a quarter between two students so they each saw one side of the quarter. I asked the students to take turns describing what they saw. One, of course, would describe George Washington’s head. The other student would describe an eagle. I asked them to argue with each other, insisting the other person was wrong. They were both looking at the same quarter, how could they see such different things?
The students giggled a bit as they argued, feeling silly to debate an issue when they knew that both perceptions were right. That would lead to a class discussion about that very topic–how often did people argue about an issue where there was really no right or wrong answer, just perception?
In reality there is no reality.
Each of us has a unique lens through which we view everything around us, no lens better than another, only different. Our perception is influenced by our background, our knowledge, our values, and our beliefs. We can never experience things in the exact same way as the person next to us and we need to stop pretending we can.
Don’t put yourself in other people’s shoes because you will end up with more than just stinky feet. You will end up thinking that you understand how they feel, but actually you will only understand how you would feel in their situation. And, it is not about you at all. Believe me when I say that I’m still working on understanding that the world does not revolve around Allyson Apsey, this is not an easy thing to grasp in our egocentric society. Yet, when we are empathizing with someone, it is all about how they feel–given their background, their knowledge, their values, and their beliefs.
Empathy is listening with an open heart. It is going there with them, at least for the moment. As Brené Brown teaches us, empathy is saying, “I’m so sorry, that must be so hard.” It is not saying (or thinking), “I have been through something similar and I wasn’t that upset, so chill out.”
Here are three helpful “don’ts” when it comes to expressing empathy:
- Don’t put yourself in others’ shoes. It’s not about how you would handle their current situation, it is about what they are experiencing and feeling.
- Don’t kick people when they are down by making a judgement. Accurate or not, they just don’t need your judgement. They need your love and support.
- Don’t assume you know how to help. Instead, ask four very important words, “How can I help?”
I truly believe this quote by Indian author Arundhati Ray, “Empathy may be the single most important quality that must be nurtured to give peace a fighting chance.” Empathy contributes to peace within ourselves as well as peace in our relationships. Everyone has their own sets of challenges, empathy gives us an opportunity to lessen the burdens through connection.
The saying goes, “Don’t judge someone until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes.” Knowing that we can never walk a mile in someone’s shoes because we will never look at the world through the same lens they do can help remind us to never judge. I remind myself every day that there is a judge, it’s just not me.
“Empathy is seeing with the eyes of another, listening with the ears of another and feeling with the heart of another.” – Alfred Adler