The Power of Empathy
“Be kinder than necessary because everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle” – J.M. Barrie
The ability to put ourselves in another person’s shoes is not only for the sake of being a nice person… It is essential for all effective communication. Communication is the basis of ALL relationships.
In personal and in professional relationships, having the capacity to get out of your shell and see the situation from the other person’s perspective will make you more likeable, influential, and authentic. It will make you a better friend, better partner, better parent, better negotiator, better professional.
The practice of getting out of your shell and trying to see another’s perspective from time to time will also make you more aware of your own blind spots and biases. And the benefits of this knowledge are hard to overestimate.
Just take a mindful moment. 3 deep breaths will allow a moment for you to pause before you react. Notice how you are feeling or a quick reminder of three good things in your day.
Be the change you want to see! Imagine you are at the supermarket with your children and have a full trolley of items. The person behind you only has a few. You offer for them to go first. Kinder than necessary.
Or, you are driving with your children in the car and a car cuts you off. Don’t pull the finger. Don’t shout out a few nasty comments. How about next time, try naming your emotion but offering a bit of compassion up too. “Gosh that is frustrating when a car cuts you off, they must be having a hard day to be in such a rush”. Right here and now you are modelling for your child the next time someone bugs them – they name their emotion but they still act with kindness.
Set a kindness intention. Ask your child as they set off for school, how are you going to be kinder than necessary today? In particular put the emphasis on, how could you do something nice for someone who bothers you? Or at the end of the day see if you can elicit some information about acts of kindness they carried out. You are showing your child that your family values kindness. This is not to be confused with rewarding kindness, see next point:
Take rewards out of the kindness expectation. If you want your children and students to be kind then pop away your certificates and gold stars. Tell them to be kind for kindness sake. No one is watching you, still be kind. There is a lot of research out there on the implications of rewarding kindness and the fact that it tends to dull motivation.
From a survival point of view…
Everyone is facing a battle! The very nature of being human means that we will inevitably experience sadness, setbacks and failures. Yet despite this we are also capable of being a resilient species. We are familiar with Charles Darwin’s phrase “survival of the fittest” from his evolutionary theory. Interestingly, Darwin wrote a 828 page sequel to On the Origin of Species in which he mentioned ‘survival of the fittest’ only twice, while LOVE is spoken about 95 times. Our tendency to care for one another is perhaps our strongest and most adaptive instinct in keeping us alive.
From a selfish point of view…
Kindness is good for the heart, the body releases a hormone called oxytocin when you are kind, which helps to protect and strengthen your heart. Even the neuroscience and social science research is clear. Kindness changes the brain, it makes us more resilient and allows us to feel more connected.
From a changing the world point of view…
Where to start? Just imagine if our political leaders still spoke with respect despite having vastly different views.
Try this meditation exercise!
Think of a person that you relate with on a daily basis, or one that you have a particular hard time to understand and connect with.
- For a couple of minutes, close your eyes and imagine that you are that person. You think, talk, and move as they do
- Imagine that you are under their skin, thinking their thoughts, feeling their feelings, looking at life from their perspective
- Imagine that you have the memories, life experiences and desires of that person
- Take some time so this can really sink in
- Forget all about yourself while doing this exercise
Once you have completed this meditation, simply observe how you feel. Notice whether your understanding and feelings about this person have changed.