Listen: Chris Witts presents Morning Devotions.
I think it’s important to spend a few minutes talking about empathy. It’s not some kind of ‘fuzzy feel good’ emotion that doesn’t matter—there’s a lot to it that impacts us each.
There’s a fascinating line in Harper Lee’s classic book To Kill A Mockingbird:
You never really understand another person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.
Our problem is our own level of selfishness, me and myself, even the prejudices we have. W. C. Fields used to say, “I’m free of all prejudices. I hate everyone equally.” I hope he was only joking.
The empathy deficit
Empathy can be described as the ability to step imaginatively into the shoes of another person and understand their feelings and perspectives.
Australian philosopher Peter Singer moved to the US in the 1970s and noticed how many of his work colleagues were depressed and seeing therapists—some every day. He was intrigued and asked why was this happening? Some said they felt repressed, suffered unresolved psychological tensions, or found life to not have meaning. Singer told them they spent too much time looking inside themselves and they’d be better off dedicating themselves to a cause which was greater than themselves.
In 2006, President Barack Obama in the lead up to the 2008 US Presidential elections said,
I think we should talk more about our empathy deficit. The ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes; to see the world through the eyes of those who are different from us—the child who’s hungry, the steelworker who’s been laid off, the family who lost the entire life they built together when the storm came to town. When you think like this, when you choose to broaden your ambit of concern and empathise with the plight of others, whether they are close friends or distant strangers, it becomes harder not to act; harder not to help.
He talked here about an ’empathy deficit’, and I’m sure he’s right.
Going beyond sympathy
Did you know Mercedes Benz, the car manufacturer, is no longer interested in achieving customer satisfaction? That does not mean that customer experience is not important to Mercedes. Quite the opposite. It means that customer experience is so important that satisfaction is not enough. Instead, the company wants its customers to feel delighted by their experience with Mercedes. The company’s president and CEO believe that engaging Mercedes employees is key to achieving that.
For example, a recent company poll found that 70 percent of employees had never driven a Mercedes. They are now being given the opportunity to do so, so that they can better empathise with customers, and therefore engage with them more effectively. That’s a great example of empathy.
But of course, it’s more than that. Empathy is, at its simplest, awareness of the feelings and emotions of other people. It is a key element of Emotional Intelligence, the link between self and others because it is how we as individuals understand what others are experiencing as if we were feeling it ourselves.
Empathy goes far beyond sympathy, which might be considered ‘feeling for’ someone. Empathy, instead, is ‘feeling with’ that person, through the use of imagination.
- Do we really take the time and effort to really understand others?
- Do we try to understand the feelings of others or just those we enjoy?
All too often we say in a nice way, Don’t bother me with your problems. I’ve got enough of my own to deal with.
(To be continued in Expressing Empathy to Others – Part 2)