Lately, it seems as though we hear about empathy everywhere.
Many experts believe it is the cornerstone for establishing healthy relationships, becoming better leaders, and bridging the gap between everyday disagreements—that if people just had more empathy, we would have more compassion and less misaligned, hate-filled behavior in the world.
We read about empathy, we sometimes practice it, but do we truly understand it?
We often think that empathy—or seeing things from another’s perspective—is integral for authentic relationships. But what if that’s only part of the equation?
Our approach to empathy often resembles our fantasies of “true love.” We long for the windswept, twin flame, soul-shaking connection that we hope our beloved will bring, but when our eyes catch a glimpse of the rawness and depth that comes with the human condition, we sometimes feel the urge to run.
We naively approach empathy similarly—like an all-or-nothing package deal—believing that in order to have a true connection, we must let others into the deepest parts of ourselves. When this backfires, we are subsequently lead into pseudo connections based on pity party antics or, even worse, silent, self-righteous dispositions. When we finally recover, we think: well, I’m never doing that again.
But what if empathy is not about you at all?
Empathy does not necessarily require us to have experienced the same landscapes as others. It requires us to get over our need for control and let another person drive. Empathy is about soaking in the sights and sounds experienced by another and allowing them to be our tour guide—with absolutely no room for backseat drivers.
True and genuine empathy requires you to let go, lean in, and commit to the other—and this is essential.
So how do we incorporate a more mindful approach? Like anything else, we need practice—so that we become intentional in improving our capacity to open ourselves up more and more to authentic connections that are waiting to unfold.
Here are three ways that we can cultivate genuine empathy in our lives and relationships:
1. Release and let go.
When connecting with another person, turn off the part of your brain that is trying to identify something that you have experienced—at least at first. Listen without an urge or intention to respond, and just be. Use nonverbals (i.e. head nod, eye contact) to reassure that you are with them.
So when your best friend is describing the hard time they are having with their mother-in-law or a colleague is sharing their feelings of imposter syndrome, don’t just jump at the first urge to say, “I know exactly how you feel.” The other is your new tour guide. Allow them to lead the way.
2. Embrace the beginner’s mind.
The beginner’s mind is a Buddhist term that describes a curiosity and openness to the ideas or the task in front you as if they are being experienced for the first time. There is an excitement and a freedom that comes with this. Even if you do relate to what someone is telling you, hear it and see it for the first time. Ask purposeful and inquisitive questions about the person’s experience. Allow them to guide the discussion.
The next time your teenager is chatting endlessly about her eighth grade adventures, it’s not the time to recount your glory days. Ask questions about her favorite class, the reasons why she’ll never use algebra in real life, and why the school cafeteria food always stinks. Even though some things never change, the experience is brand-new through her eyes. Go there with her.
3. Commit to being human.
When you truly empathize with someone, you may find yourself being uncomfortable with what you hear/see. Their experiences could be far different from anything that you have ever encountered. It is essential that you move past the unease. Remember, it’s not about you. At the end of it all, we all want to feel and know that we are seen. Connect to the human part of their experience. Do you sense delight? Fear? Elation? Embarrassment? Melancholy?
Being human provides all the common ground you’ll ever need. In the end, empathy is not about judgment or even making sense of another’s experience—it’s about being an open and magnanimous spectator who is along for the ride.
In a time when it seems that we are more disconnected than ever, it is essential that we have the tools to protect the way we connect with others. From within our organizations, our families, and even with the strangers we have yet to meet, as we redefine what it means to connect, our hope lies in the ability to shift the way we think about relating to each other—and the way we think about connection. We won’t always understand everything we see in others, but it is essential that we dig deep and persevere.
Empathy requires us to stand the course. It requires a commitment to the other.
Our future depends on it.