In the last lesson, we talked about how to empathize with yourself. Empathizing with yourself helps you to empathize with others, because if you understand your own feelings it is easier to understand the feelings of others.
However, if you really want to understand others, you need more than self-empathy. You also need to spend some time thinking about the way other people understand the world.
This sounds complicated, but it really boils down to one thing:
Train yourself to ask the question "How does this situation appear to the other person?" during every interaction---and spend the brain cycles necessary to think of a reasonable answer.
The goal here is not to be a mind reader or to know with certainty what the other person is thinking. All you need to do is imagine what it would be like to be that person, and make some reasonable guesses about what that person is thinking or feeling.
Empathy And The Art Of Sock Collection
For instance, let's say a friend corners you and starts chatting about a topic you find excruciatingly boring (their sock collection, perhaps).
If you view the situation from your perspective, you're liable to get frustrated and snap at your friend---they should have know how boring socks are to you!
But if you take the time to look at it from the friend's perspective, you get a better understanding of their actions. Most likely, if the person is your friend, they care about you and they're not trying to bore you. Chances are that in their excitement to tell someone about their new alpaca wool crew socks, they just forgot how boring socks are to you.
From your perspective, you have been trapped in a boring conversation. From their perspective, they're sharing something exciting with you.
Once you take the time to look at it from their perspective, you can handle the situation in a much better way. You won't snap at them now---you understand that they don't mean to bore you.
Instead, you might try to gently change the subject. Or, you might decide this is an opportunity to grow closer to your friend, and use the conversation to find out more about something (socks!) that is important to them.
The Danger Of Your Perspective
Unfortunately, our natural tendency is to see things from our own perspective (that's why it's called OUR perspective.)
Rather than trying to find out how the other person sees things, we try to convince them to see things our way. Instead of accepting that the other person will always see things differently, we get angry at them for not seeing things the same way we do.
I used to be guilty of this all the time. I would do something that my parents found disrespectful, so they would get upset with me. Then, I would get upset with them for being upset with me!
I didn't mean to be disrespectful, so I became indignant when they accused me of disrespect---it seemed like my motives should be obvious to them!
The Need For Discipline
Everything changed once I started to train myself in empathy, I began to to ask myself "Why are my parents so upset?" And when I really thought through that question, I realized that even though I didn't mean disrespect, my parents still felt disrespected. I have great parents, but they're not mind-readers, and so they couldn't know my motives---only my actions.
Once I realized this, I was much better equipped to handle our conflict in a positive way. I would ask myself "How would this look to my parents?" when I was considering an action, which helped me avoid saying or doing something that would upset my parents. Our relationship improved, and conflict with my parents became much less common.
I share that example to illustrate a key point. When people do something that seems irrational to you, it still makes sense from their perspective. If you take the time to step back and ask "Ok, why is this person behaving like this?" you will usually find a reasonable answer, and that answer will help you to respond better.
But asking that question doesn't happen automatically. You need to make a deliberate decision to ask yourself "How does this look to the other person?" You need to be willing to surrender your insistence that the other person sees things your way. And you need to do this again and again and again, until it becomes automatic.
The Power Of True Empathy
Building empathy is not easy. I'll admit that.
But as you continue to ask yourself "How does this situation appear to the other person?" something remarkable will occur. The question itself will become less and less necessary. You will start to intuitively sense how the other person is feeling.
In other words, you will start to develop true empathy.
This does take time. You've spent a long time looking at the world exclusively through your own perspective, so you will have to overwrite many years of habit. But trust me, it's worth it.
I have an exercise for you today, too. You might find it difficult at first, but it will kick-start your ability to build empathy towards others. Here's the exercise:
In the conversations you have today, ask yourself "What is the other person thinking and feeling right now? How are they perceiving this interaction?" Of course, you won't know for sure if your guess is accurate, but more likely than not, you'll be close.
Once you feel comfortable asking that question, see if you can act on that knowledge. Maybe the grocery store clerk says "Hi" to you in a dull voice, and you realize "Gosh, this person has probably been working all day, and they're feeling worn out." Well, see if you can cheer them up! Tell them they're doing a great job, or compliment them on their smile, or ask them where they got their earrings.
It will take time to become comfortable with this, but it becomes easier each time you do it. Once you learn to develop empathy with others, it will become second nature to show empathy to them.
Of course, there's one final piece of the empathy puzzle. When you want to show someone you understand how they're feeling, it's important to make sure your nonverbal signals agree with your words. And you're in luck---read on and I'll show you how.