Let me tell you what empathy is NOT:
- Only agreeing with or approving of people who think as you do about something.
- Seeming to believe that everyone would do or say or think as you do in the same circumstances.
- Making statements that suggest that you believe you know what’s in a person’s mind or heart when you haven’t actually listened to them or asked them what they think.
- Assuming anything about another human being.
- Seeing some human beings as less worthy than you. (They might be, as measured in some ways, but you might not be in the right position to judge.)
It’s likely to be harder in these days where most of us spend so much time on social media. This is because the algorithms that drive what we see have tapped into the unfortunate trait in human nature that means we focus more time and attention on outrage and hate, and we’re more likely to respond to them than to more positive stories, so the platforms feed us outrage and hate above other things. They do this simply because Google and Facebook et al are predicated on trying to keep us looking at them for as long as possible because that’s how they get revenue from advertising. This is not conspiracy theory: it’s inevitable when a company gets its revenue from advertising and when, the longer we look at an advert or the more of them we see, the more income to the platform. So, as we’re more likely to click on a story that’s about outrage and hate than we are to click on one about sweetness and light, that’s what they’ll give us.
Outrage and hate are the opposite of empathy. Or, rather, they are the preventers of it. They are the vaccines that stop us catching empathy.
Here are some things I’ve written about empathy:
- After a talk I did for Walker Books staff last year, someone asked how to deal with someone not showing empathy – my answer here
- About that talk, and including three top tips: https://www.nicolamorgan.com/news/empathy-comes-from-brains-not-emojis-empathyday2021/
- Challenging you: How strong is YOUR empathy really?
- Some books to help you have empathy with someone with poor body image
- Cognitive empathy – how can you be empathetic with someone whose experience you don’t share?
- Empathy from stories – true and fictional
Here are my tips for having genuine empathy:
- Recognise – and believe fully, from the bottom of your heart because it is true – that you cannot know 100% accurately what someone else is feeling and thinking, even if you know them very well and they have told you what they are feeling and thinking. There are two ways in which their feelings and thoughts might not be as you think they are: they might not have expressed them accurately or you might not have understood them accurately. You will probably have overlaid your own assumptions, even if you tried not to.
- The better you know someone, the closer you are likely to be able to be to what they are feeling and thinking. (But not definitely so.)
- The less well you know them, the less likely you are to be right about them. Strangers on Twitter fall into that category, even the ones who agree with you on the issue you’re thinking about.
- Empathy is a skill we grow by practising. Adults are on average better than children; teenagers on average better than younger children; stressed people find it harder, including stressed teenagers. But age and experience are not the only positive influences because sometimes older people become cynical or over-confident about their knowledge and become stuck in their own group mindset. Being stuck in your own group and its mindset is never a good way for empathy except towards that group.
- Practice comes from listening – listening and hearing, checking you heard right, asking questions and listening and hearing again. And then listening and hearing some more. You can add to this by listening to characters in books, too, both fictional and factual ones.
- If you can only listen to and hear people who say the same as you, you do not have strong skills of empathy. Far too many people laud (their own) empathy and in the next breath make thoughtless judgements about someone’s character, mental state, beliefs or motivation, simply because the person said something they disagree with. That’s an example of cognitive dissonance getting in the way of empathy. It doesn’t need to. A good person deals with the dissonance by thinking more.
If you do not have strong skills of empathy, you will always be at great risk of misunderstanding the people around you, including what they think of you. You will be like a sailor with a dodgy compass and no map of the stars.
So try to steer clear of outrage and hate.