Recognizing the value of the experiences of other people, and looking at a situation from their vantage point, helps us to define solutions more accurately and grow together.
Empathy is a key theme in my work. You can explore work and writing that deals with empathy here.
Empathy — the capacity, willingness and practice of considering another person’s experience and attempting to see things as they do — is often thought of as a feeling to experience instead of a skill to cultivate. Empathy is value placed on the understanding of another’s situation. It is half of the odd epoxy (along with self-interest) that binds community. Empathy keeps us good. Us as individuals and us as a whole. When we stop considering the impact of our actions on others, the consequences quickly become clear.
Empathy as a sense or capacity does not seem to be at a constant strength throughout one’s life. It starts minimally, grows (and sometimes peaks) in childhood, and at times seems to dull as our age and responsibilities climb. Like physical strength, it feels like it takes more and more vigilance to sustain an empathetic outlook as our worldview becomes more entrenched. Empathy can prove a frustrating foil to reasoned hypotheses. Some people seem more highly attuned to empathy or carry the inclination closer to the surface. Sometimes we just forget about it, or at least become less mindful of it.
Yet empathy is a critical capacity in so many areas of our lives.
Any problem-solving that involves other people requires it. How can we attempt to solve other people’s needs — and expect success — if we don’t consider their perspective? History is littered with examples of empires, governments, companies, products and relationships that failed because of incorrect assumptions about other people. It is also filled with corresponding civil rights and independence movements demanding recognition of the value of its people; upstart companies who better interpreted what consumers wanted out of a product or technology; and the more sensitive boyfriend or girlfriend that your ex is now dating.
In some ways, empathy is the intuitive sibling of research (and often the motivating force behind it). A commitment to research aspires to an objective understanding of the reality of a subject. A commitment to empathy aspires to a subjective understanding of the situation of one person by another. Both are important and reveal different truths. The degree to which empathy and research lead to concurring results vary.
Of course, empathy is a feeling. But like so many feelings, it’s one that can be nurtured or quashed. In a world that is becoming rapidly integrated and feels increasingly contentious, it’s an important capacity worth developing.