Sunday, February 11, 2018

What Is Empathy? And Why Is It So Important?

Someone else's experience is different from mine. 

It seems obvious doesn't it? But I think it's one of the most important things to come to terms with in developing empathy. It's important to recognize another person's experience is different than mine and then honor that experience and try to understand it.

That's empathy. It's the emotional skill of being able to recognize, understand, and honor the feelings of another person.

I have to admit, sometimes I struggle to understand another person's experience. It seems so obvious to me how they should respond or how they should feel in a given situation. If I'm not careful, I start feeling the need to convince them why they should feel more like I do about this thing. My sweet wife will confirm this I promise!

But that's not helpful. Every person has every right to every one of their feelings. They belong to that person. And that's okay. 

I've learned better how to respond when I have those thoughts, when I'm tempted to expect others to see it my way, right away. In the past, I felt frustrated and even angry if a student or colleague (or my wife or kids) was being unreasonable in my view, if they didn't see it my way, if they didn't feel the same as me. 

It's so important to keep healthy emotional boundaries. I'm not going to let your (emotional) stuff bump into my (emotional) stuff.

Instead of responding with anger or frustration, I've learned to try to respond with curiosity. Rather than being upset by someone else's feelings, I respond with curiosity and puzzlement. Hm? I wonder what this person is experiencing right now or what this person has experienced in the past that makes them feel this way? I'm curious. I want to understand.

And that creates the safety for dialogue. It keeps safety in the conversation. And it requires me to listen. When I'm curious, I want to know more. I want to understand how this person is experiencing this. I remind myself that my feelings are still mine. I can feel a certain way while honoring another person's feelings too. It helps me to show up well in the situation and work toward win-win solutions.

When we honor the other person's experience, it opens paths for shared understanding. Most of us want to be understood. In fact, one of the things that bumps into me more than just about anything else is feeling misunderstood. I'm sure many of you can relate to that.

Some people (mainly guys) might see all of this as soft or weak, but it's not. It's actually being a much stronger person. You are stronger when you have your emotional abilities in hand. Weak people fly off the handle and act like toddlers when they don't get their way. Strong people don't feel threatened easily by someone's differences. There is great strength in accepting differences.

But of course, it's still completely appropriate and beneficial to call out bad behavior. We must hold people accountable when they act badly. Empathy is not being tolerant of bad behavior. But it is being tolerant of another person's experiences and feelings. It's addressing the behavior in a way that tries to understand what the behavior is communicating, because all behavior is communication.

Empathy helps us think about the needs of others, and ultimately when we do this we are much more likely to have our needs met too. We're more likely to have authentic conversations that lead to better decisions. We're also more likely to feel heard when we are able to have honest conversations that keep empathy at the center. 

So clearly I value empathy. Why is it so important? Here are 9 reasons for educators.

1. Empathy leads to kindness. It fosters acceptance and understanding. Empathy lifts up others. It meets needs. It believes the best about others.

2. Empathy brings people together in community. It helps us to connect in spite of our differences, no matter what our differences.

3. Empathy results in better lesson plans. It seeks to understand how students learn this best, how they are experiencing learning. It values them as learners. 

4. Empathy results in better discipline plans. Empathy is not punitive, it's corrective and supportive. It seeks to understand and prevent the causes of poor behavior. It is essential to resolving conflict.

5. Empathy improves teamwork. Effective teams are build on trust and togetherness. Empathy allows for constructive conflict.

6. Empathy improves problem-solving. It opens us to new possibilities and it considers the end-user and how solutions will impact others.

7. Empathy improves performance. Performance is stronger when people value risk taking and accept failure as an opportunity to learn. Empathy provides the safety for that to flourish.

8. Empathy builds stronger relationships. Most people want to be liked, to have more friends, to have people we can really count on. Empathy is essential to developing stronger bonds between people.

9. Empathy can reduce anxiety and depression. When people feel heard, feel understood, and feel supported, it can help ease anxiety and depression. Depression for teens, especially has been on the rise. I wonder how a culture of empathy might ease this in our schools.

I want to hear from you. Why is empathy important to you and what are you doing to cultivate it in your classroom or school? Leave a comment below or respond on Facebook or Twitter.

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