6 Ways to Cultivate Empathy
February 2021 | by jamie beeson
I sat on the ledge of a big hospital window waiting for the test results of my 4-week-old son, fighting back tears and trying to tame the fearful thoughts barging into my brain space. It all happened so fast. He had some strange symptoms on a Monday afternoon and when I took him in, he was immediately admitted to the hospital for testing. We were left waiting to find out what was wrong with his brain. His brain. On top of adjusting to having three children, allowing my post-pregnancy hormones to find their new normal, and being dog tired from having a newborn, I was also forced to wrap my mind around having a child with medical needs or, potentially, a life-threatening disease. I felt sucker-punched.
After what seemed like a decade, a neurologist walked through the doors. With no acknowledgment of my fragile state, he proceeded to report his findings. I wish I could tell you what he said, and it wasn't because I was overwhelmed by tears or chaotic thoughts, it was because he was speaking medical gibberish. He then asked to hold my newborn. I handed him cautiously to the doctor, who proceeded to hold him under his armpits. My baby's young neck with zero muscular control flopped forward. He held him like a specimen as he tried to look into his eyes and his head drooped. I began to question whether he'd worked with tiny humans before or even seen one. He said something like, "He has epilepsy. Give him this medicine that will hopefully decrease the epileptic activity in his brain." And that was that.
Except, there I remained with countless questions. What is epilepsy? I didn't know! Will he be ok? A medicine that dulls his brain...come again? I had never met a medical professional who lacked social skills like this before. I had also never communicated with another human who appeared to have zero sympathy, empathy, or compassion.
I wasn't looking for a big hug or for a doctor to meltdown. I just wanted to feel that my overwhelming fear was acknowledged and understood. I wanted assurance that we'd work together to help this tiny human who filled a large piece of my heart that was simultaneously breaking. I just wanted to know that this doctor knew I was struggling, and he was there to help and support me. I wanted empathy and compassion.
Was it just me, or is empathy something we all need? Do we all need to have the ability to be empathetic? Is sympathy the same thing, and will that suffice? And what about compassion? Where does that play into all of this? Is compassion just a trait you either have or you don't? I find it helpful to define the words.
Sympathy is our ability to acknowledge and feel sorry or pity for someone else's misfortune. Empathy is our ability to understand someone's emotion, put ourselves in their shoes, and feel what they feel. Sympathy says, "I see you're walking a hard path, and I'm sorry." Empathy says, "I know what walking this hard path feels like, and it hurts." While both are needed and used in different scenarios with different people, we all have an inborn desire to be seen, known, and heard. Sympathy sees, but empathy helps someone feel known and heard.
In a world full of hurt and heartache, empathy is an expression of love that brings the cure. It won't prevent the suffering, but it helps to heal it. A person who practices empathy is a person who allows their empathy to become active. Activated empathy is compassion. Compassion, in my book, is when the empathy runs deep enough to move us...literally. It's when we do something for someone with whom we are empathizing. If that doctor had empathy, it might've sounded like, "I know this is very hard news to hear. I am going to connect you with some people who can help you process this. I'll gather some resources to help you learn more about it. We'll work on this, and we won't give up. We'll take care of your sweet boy with the best of all we've got."
As I've learned about empathy and how desperately our world needs it, I naturally landed on the question, "If you don't have it, how do you get it?" Cultivating empathy is much like cultivating other skills or character traits like generosity. It's a practice, it's a choice, and it begins with understanding your own feelings. If you can't get comfortable entering into your own spaces of vulnerability, you won't ever be comfortable getting into someone else's.
Here are six ways to cultivate empathy. What the world needs now is love. Empathy and compassion are in love's family. You and I are the funnels. Do you want to practice with me?
1. Be curious about people. Ask questions. Take time to listen to their story. Curiosity expands our empathy when we talk with people outside of our social circles and hear different points of view.
2. Look for commonalities. Challenge yourself to find commonalities with every person in your life, even those you don't like. Prejudices, stereotypes, and other generalities disconnect the human race. Finding commonalities breaks down walls and invites empathy to the table.
3. Walk-in someone's shoes. Take opportunities to live in someone’s world, even if just for an hour. Go to a tribal ceremony. Travel. Volunteer in homeless shelters.
4. Practice vulnerability. Share your feelings with safe people. Having the courage to open up will establish a connection and give you a better ability to be on the receiving end.
5. Feel then do. When you can feel empathy for someone, let it move you. Maybe it moves you to show up at the hospital to sit by them in the waiting room. Perhaps it moves you to call and check up on someone. Maybe it moves you to create a non-profit. It doesn't matter the size of the doing. Just let it run full circle.
6. Less answering, more listening. When you have the privilege of someone opening up to you, resist the urge to answer or solve the problem. Listen, acknowledge, and be ok with silence.