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How many times have you heard the phrase, "Put yourself in someone else's shoes"? The ability to understand how another person's beliefs, feelings, and experiences makes them feel is known as empathy.
But, what does empathy really entail?
Ernest Wilson of the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism calls empathy "a deep emotional intelligence that is closely connected to cultural competence…Empathy enables those who possess it to see the world
through others' eyes and understand their perspectives."
Having empathy is a desirable trait, but Wilson and his colleagues discovered via a survey of their graduates that "empathy is most lacking among middle managers and senior executives: the very people who need it most because their actions affect large
numbers of people."
So, if a large group of people are lacking this essential skill, can one learn to be empathetic? Is this a learnable skill?
I believe that empathy is a skill one can learn and that it begins with listening. You cannot be empathetic if you cannot make yourself available to listen to the other person. But, active listening is not easy, because it involves focusing 100% of your
attention on the person speaking. This means putting down your phone, disregarding the distractions, and paying attention so you can process what is being said and how it is being said.
Connecting with the other person is also necessary to understand who they are outside of the small world in which you may know them. This provides necessary context for their beliefs and feelings.
Casting aside judgment is critical. While empathy does not mean you agree with the person, you can't sit in judgment, either. This may be the most difficult part of learning to be empathetic, because it involves us letting go of preconceived notions about
others and about ourselves. Recognize when you are making judgments, which often occurs out of fear or our need to be "right."
The Center for Extraordinary Relationships offers five steps to becoming less judgmental:
Reflection is another pathway toward feeling empathy, and it must be used to self-assess one’s progress. Acknowledging where you began on the empathy scale will help you move forward. Then, assessing the movement — what was easy, what was difficult, where
you succeeded, and where you failed — will help you learn, enhance, and perfect these skills.
Finally, without actively practicing, you can never develop these skills. Practice every day.
Not sure how empathetic you are? I recommend taking this (non-scientific) quiz to give you an idea.
Now, try putting yourself in someone else’s shoes today.
Anne Converse Willkomm Director of Graduate Studies Goodwin College Drexel University