Empathy is a buzz word used in health care, business, education, the state of our political discourse, and every other place you find people trying to create better. Anti-bullying initiatives are built around it. Books are written on it. Former President Barack Obama repeatedly incorporated the idea of Empathy into his speeches. And while empathy is a critical skill for young people to develop—and for us older folks to practice—it is only one small step forward on our journey to create better classrooms, schools, and communities. “Empathy,” or attempting to understand and share the feelings of another, by itself fails to influence others. Only when empathy is coupled with action do we create the opportunity for compassionate change.
Being curious about new people…
is a great way to expand empathy. When we are curious about people who live outside of our immediate social circles we explore worldviews that are different from our own. Something you can do in your lives is to put in the effort to get to know people in your school. Organize an event where different clubs can get together and socialize. Introduce yourself to the new student in your grade. You may find that those introductions broaden your horizons and expand your thinking.
Exploring our shared commonalities…
is another way to expand empathy. Doing so allows us to see that others are not so different from ourselves at a deep level. Sometimes we give different groups of people labels. We might do this based on an interaction we have with a member of that group. Or we might draw our conclusions based on the things we have heard about the people in that group. Try to challenge your assumptions about different groups so that you can connect to individual people. Connecting to another person always helps to build bridges between groups. The act of building those bridges creates compassionate relationships where they may not have existed before.
Pay attention to the experiences you thought you would never have.
After college, I moved out of state for graduate school. I was still covered by my parent’s health insurance, and one day I had to go to the hospital. While I was in a gown, and waiting for the Doctor to see me, someone from billing came into the room and told me that my insurance was not accepted at that hospital and I would either need to leave or pay out of pocket for the services. Although I had called the insurance company ahead of time to see that the services would be covered, being asked to leave left me deeply reflective about the state of our healthcare system. I had good insurance, and I could not get the treatment I needed. What if I had NO insurance?
It was an experience I thought I would never have. And, frankly, it was an experience I was not prepared for. It made me think a number of things. I thought about being an un/under-insured parent and not being able to get healthcare for a sick child about not having insurance. And how much my parents were paying for their insurance. I thought about how lucky I was, and that there were folks who were not so lucky. From that moment, I have tried hard to pay attention to those experiences where I feel surprised.
Consider the proper action associated with the feelings of empathy.
We turn our thoughts of empathy into compassion through acts of kindness. Practice noticing your empathetic responses. And then work hard to exercise the empathy-muscle. Once you are practicing empathy, figure out what action is going to make the situation better. What are you going to do to create compassion in the world, from the empathy you experience moment-to-moment?