Empathy can allow us to understand someone else’s experience, perspective, worldview and feelings. Empathy can lead us to feel that we understand why someone behaves the way that they do, even if these are considered to be bad behaviors. It’s important at this point to make note: Empathy is like a tool. Tools can be used to build things, but they can also be very destructive. A hammer can be used to build a house, but it can also be used to tear one down.
Since empathy simply means that we can feel the feelings of someone else, it does not answer the question, “What should we do with these feelings?” As a tool, this can allow us to resonate with another person, and to see why they do the things that they do. Empathy can be a tool in developing compassion, where we try to be more kind to others in an attempt to alleviate their suffering. On the other side of things, empathy can cloud our understanding of the big picture. We may empathize with one person at the expense of someone else. Empathy can lead us to taking sides in a conflict before seeing or hearing all perspectives.
When we support a certain cause or perspective, we are often selectively empathizing with one person or group of people over another. Consider the example of talking to a family member or friend about a foreign policy. Let’s say that we disagree on which side to support. We may be in danger of accusing the other person of not being empathetic. In our eyes, they are not being understanding of the struggles faced by those whom our empathy is directed towards. What if the person we disagree with is in fact empathizing, but with the person or people on the other side of the argument? As you can see, these things can get complicated. To make things trickier, how do we know who is right?
Humans tend to empathize with those that we share most in common with and there are many complex, interacting and compounding variables in this equation. By keeping this tendency in mind, we may be able to better manage our own thoughts and see multiple perspectives.
When you start to feel empathy towards another person this week, ask yourself what someone on the “other side” of their story might be experiencing. Ask curious questions to get the whole picture. See if this changes how you feel and react!