Five ways to learn empathy

7:00 AM

The cure for injustice isn’t strategy. It isn’t education, resources, or enforcement.

The cure for injustice is empathy.

Why do so many evils thrive around us? Why are our relationships suffering? Why are our communities disjointed and our churches divided? Because we just don’t care. Not enough to change.

We glorify self, ambition, schedule, and success, and as these things inflate, other people diminish. We don’t have time to really listen. We don’t have patience to understand someone else’s viewpoint. True empathy -- feeling someone else’s feelings and putting yourself in their place -- doesn’t fit on the priority list.

Brene Brown said that “empathy fuels connection, sympathy drives disconnection.” While we may feel pity often enough, or have sympathy for someone else, sympathy and pity don’t drive us to action. Until we stop, get out of our heads and feel someone else’s pain, our cultures, our relationships, and our communities will remain broken.

Want to spark a radical movement? Put empathy in the spotlight rather than talking points. Learn how to really care about other people, and see what change follows. If you’re ready to start right now, here are five ways to learn empathy.

Actively Listen
How often are you looking at your phone or thinking of your next point while you “listen” to someone else? Practice active listening by being completely present when someone is talking to you. Put away distractions and make eye contact. And here’s where the “active” listening comes in: show you are really processing by paraphrasing. Respond to other person with, “I hear you saying that you feel _____” or “If I’m understanding you right, you feel like ____.” These responses are especially helpful in conflict. Practice saying this genuinely in a tense situation and see how the conflict de-escalates.

Practice Curiosity
We all get in ruts as we go about our routines and focus on the tasks at hand. Practice being curious about life, especially people. Get to know the other parents when you pick up your kids. Ask the grocery bagger about himself. Work out without your earbuds at the gym and see what conversations you can start. Greet your neighbor instead of closing your garage door when you get home. You might be surprised at what you discover in people if you look up from your phone when you’re in public.

Actually Walk in Their Shoes
There’s something called experiential empathy, and it means you actually put yourself in a new experience to understand someone different from you. Volunteer with a group that makes you uncomfortable. Go on a mission trip. Serve downtown. Do something kind for someone you disagree with. Find an opportunity that’s outside of your comfort zone, and go into it seeking to learn about and understand the people you encounter.

Read More
Technology is awesome, but it makes us pretty lazy. Get past 140 characters, and we aren’t very disciplined about reading. Give us the highlight reel and get us on our way. But research shows that reading, especially literary fiction, actually helps us to have more empathy. Reading introduces us to new ideas and gives us practice at understanding complex characters. And hey, you might find that reading a book is more relaxing than scrolling Facebook anyway.

Let the World Break Your Heart
Melinda Gates said, “In the course of your lives, without any plan on your part, you'll come to see suffering that will break your heart.  When it happens, and it will, don't turn away from it; turn toward it. That is the moment when change is born.” We try to avoid pain because, well, it hurts. But pain is just a signal that something is wrong. That’s true for our bodies but in our emotions as well. Modern day slavery, racial injustice, world hunger, the refugee crisis, religious persecution… when it breaks your heart, it’s because something is wrong. Lean into that pain so that you can be inspired to act. No one else is going to do your part!

Ready, set, empathize! If you want more practical action steps, click here to download our 20 small acts of empathy and let us help you get started.

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