For starters I don’t know if this is a novel thought but I love to remind myself of the anagram contained in this beautiful word.

EMPATHY – PAYTHEM (we pay them our time and emotional labor)

Empathy is not about you, it’s specifically about the lack of “you” and the presence of a desire to care, to see, to imagine the life of someone else. When done correctly, empathy is a payment of care and support to THEM but never to YOU. It’s selfless at the core if used correctly, and incredibly decisive and deplorable when used in the wrong way.

Any selfless act is by comparison filled with some other motive. It turns out most of our acts are quite full of self so when you remove that from the equation there’s a whole lot of room remaining and if we can learn to fill that with empathy for someone else the impact would be incredible.

What is empathy and why is it important?

My journey with empathy began with a simple question: “What is the most desirable quality that I am seeking in a partner?” The answer, as you can probably guess, has repeatedly returned to empathy. If I find this quality so attractive I need to make sure I am full of it myself. Why should I deserve such a beautiful quality in someone if I’m not willing to built it in myself.

I also believe that in the process of every potentially empathetic act there is a small point in time that the entire act can be tarnished by ulterior motives and ego. I encourage you to find that little moment, acknowledge it, and fight against it by ignoring it and being empathetic for THEM and not for YOU.

How would you explain empathy?

Empathy is the ability to see life through someone else’s eyes. Without empathy the phrase “walk a mile in their shoes” can only be taken literally. It requires the ability to put yourself second (at least) for a moment and just consider someone else. There’s no room for ego in empathy. Empathy can be utilized to get something you want, so empathy of itself is not perfect. As with all elements of emotional intelligence you must carefully analyze the motives.

What are some examples of empathy?

  • When you give your seat to the pregnant woman ONLY because you are imagining the fatigue and burden and want to help her relax for a moment. The second you look around to see if anyone noticed your noble sacrifice you have tarnished the gift and trained yourself to leverage your empathy.
  • When you have no cash but you make eye contact and share a few words with the homeless woman on the corner because you are imagining the sadness of seeing hundreds of people pass you and pretend you don’t exist. The gift here is not money and it cost you nothing, most importantly it didn’t gain you any attention, only edification. I like to call this “empathy practice”
  • I could add hundreds and I’ll keep adding to this list but I want to move on

How can I learn to be more empathetic?

Remember firstly that being empathetic requires GIVING. You may not be in a place every day where you are capable of doing this correctly and that’s just fine. I hope everyone can learn the balance of refilling their own emotional supplies before giving away the rations they need to keep going.

How do you learn anything? SPEND your time. I believe we use that term so often and comfortably for a good reason. I will come back to this many times, the currency of our lives is time and you can spend it in any way you please. Name a skill (and empathy is just that) that you can inherently obtain and implement proficiently without putting some serious time into it. If you want to be good at seeing the world through someone else’s eyes I have an exercise for you. Decide how much you value the quality of empathy and put a number to it. Okay yeah empathy is pretty cool and nice to have, but how many minutes a day would you give to learning it? 20 minutes? 30 minutes? Let’s start with 20, I think that’s a very small cost with a very high reward.

Okay 20 minutes a day, what does that look like. I would challenge you to just start being aware of others. Just a little bit at a time, it can look like any of these throughout the day:

  • Wake up in the morning and try to start your day by thinking of someone else, this is always tough because of how slowly our consciousness takes to clarify when we wake up but try to ask yourself “which of my friends might be having a hard day today” and maybe send a text to your friend who is in between jobs and just say I was thinking of you this morning and I’m here.
  • You let someone into traffic on your way to work. That’s not empathy in itself, but maybe YOU choose to let them in because you imagine they could be having a terrible day and want to be someone who puts themselves second. You will likely never know how they perceived this, but you are practicing.
  • Again I will add more of these but you get the idea, any time you try to think like someone else in order to do something for them you are practicing.