empathy: the ability to understand and share another person’s thoughts and feelings from their point of view, rather than our own; the capacity to place oneself in another's position
It’s one of the biggest challenges of 2022. We have the capability today of interacting with hundreds or even thousands of people in our life. Technology is so powerful for reaching out to touch the lives of so many people beyond our core unit of family, friends and colleagues.
Yet how many of them do we really know? How many of them do we know well enough to understand what they’re really thinking or feeling without judgment... or to be able to place ourselves in their position?
Empathy is essential for social interactions.
We must always look beyond ourselves when we relate to others. To ignore or underestimate the importance of empathy is to make decisions from a self-centered point of view. It’s like saying that I know what you’re thinking... what you’ll like or won’t like. It’s arbitrarily deciding what’s best for you... thinking I know what you need.
And not only is a lack of true empathy challenging in our everyday personal relationships, it’s one of the fundamental problems of government, corporations and, indeed, all leadership challenges in 2022. Decisions get made without real empathy for those affected by the decisions. Listening is becoming a lost art. Assumptions abound. Self-interest dominates decision-making.
We have to be better than that.
And it’s even more important as we age. Studies have suggested that the type and level of empathy an older adult experiences can affect the sense of well-being of those adults. To understand why, we have to identify the different elements that make up what we know as empathy...
Cognitive empathy – knowing/understanding what another person is thinking or feeling... “I heard about what happened. I’m so sorry. I understand what you’re going through...” I understand the other person’s pain, but still maintain an emotional distance.
Emotional empathy – feeling what the other person is feeling... physically feeling their pain... physically sharing their feelings... putting ourself in a similar emotional space.
Compassionate empathy – in addition to understanding and feeling their concern or pain, we are moved to want to help in some way.
Communicating empathy – how we communicate or express to another person that we understand, feel and are compassionate about their concern or pain... what we say... how we say it... what we do to help.
Empathy differs from sympathy
I can be sympathetic for another’s pain or plight... fully understanding that pain or plight... yet not feeling an emotional shared connection.
Wide-reaching studies are finding that, as we age, some elements of empathy, especially cognitive empathy, tend to decline. That can have an impact on the well-being of older adults... increasing feelings of loneliness and isolation.
The fast pace of modern life and the shallow relationships that distance and social media interactions engender can conspire to challenge the cultivation of true empathy. Increasing polarization in politics, religion and family life don’t help.
Yet it is essential that we work on developing both the skill and art of building empathetic relationships.
Empathy is not automatic in relationships. It has to be worked at and nurtured to be authentic. And only authentic empathy can be communicated truthfully. Our antennae are well tuned to detect false or self-serving empathy.
Democracy requires a level of empathy that is sorely lacking in our political and social discourse today. And it frightens me – especially contemplating what kind of political and social framework our children and grandchildren will inherit.
The more we work on choosing to cultivate and express true, authentic empathy, the better our aging lives will be, and the better the world we will leave behind for the generations to come.
Here are links to two of my favorite videos on empathy: The Power Of Empathy Brene Brown On Empathy
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