Empathy recognizes that there is not one world, but many worlds. We differ, our worlds of assumptions differ. Empathy enters the other’s world as a guest. It does not forget the manners of the guest/host relationship.
— David W. Augsburger, Hate-Work
My dad once got a gift of a CD collection of Broadway show tunes.
When he unwrapped it, I was stunned.
The only show tune Dad knew was “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning.” I doubt he even knew that it was from a Broadway show, much less one called Oklahoma.
This was especially odd because this gift was given to him by someone who was a master at finding the perfect gift for everyone.
Empathy is harder than it looks.
It begins with understanding ourselves.
Knowing what we feel and think gives us insight into the inner worlds of others.
We can imagine what we would feel and think in their clothes.
But this projection is imprecise.
There is much we have in common as human beings.
But there are also many differences.
To understand another, we must watch and listen.
We need to listen to what they say — but also to how they say it.
We need to interpret their body language — provisionally.
(Sometimes people cross their arms just because their hands are cold.)
Then, we can use this intel to gently invite them to tell us how they feel and what they think.
If we want honest answers, we must suspend judgment.
It is not enough to avoid judgmental statements. We must also put those thoughts out of our minds.
At this point they don’t need advice; they need to be heard.
And they need to know that they have been heard.
We can’t rush this.
We must wait for them to show that they feel understood.
In the safe space we create, they will also understand themselves better.
And we will become more aware of our own feelings and thoughts.
We will not be able to follow this entire process with everyone we meet.
But even brief encounters can provide opportunities to use our empathy to connect with others.
This process takes energy, but it is also invigorating.
Few things are as rewarding as connecting with another human at a deep level.
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