Empathy. It’s a word I’ve always hated. I know, that’s not very empathetic of me. But to me it has always meant, “being nice to the person who is mean to you, because…just because.” I’ve never had a compelling reason to care about empathy.
I regarded the idea with a bit of skepticism. Is it possible to be genuinely empathetic? Or does it involve a little bit of “faking it?” How does it fit into our daily lives, and what purpose does it serve?
Yes, I’ve been empathetic—I think—I mean, I’ve been nice to the person who is mean to me (or at least I’ve tried), but I might have had a few misconceptions about what it means to be empathetic. After a recent event at the Digital Learning Commons centered around empathy, I’ve come to a better understanding of what it is and how it works. I don’t pretend to be a professional empath, but I did learn some lessons in empathy that I’d like to share with you.
1. Empathy is complicated. One reason it’s been hard to wrap my brain around this topic is because everyone has a different idea of what it is. “Walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.” “No, be that person, and don’t just take over their shoes, but walk with their entire body, and all their clothes, and their memories, and relationships, and past, and future.” “Go back and be born as that other person so you can fully understand them, and then walk a mile in their shoes.”
I jest for the sake of illustration. Being empathetic can be problematic, especially if you think you’re being empathetic and what you’re actually doing, from the other person’s point of view, is trampling all over them and their ideas. And then you’re a mile away, and you have their shoes. Give the person back their shoes!
Okay, empathy is complicated. What else?
2. Empathy is hard. We did an activity in pairs where each person took a turn telling their partner the story of their name. This included things like who they were named after and why, their experience having their name and introducing themselves to new acquaintences, and stories of family history and incidents related to their name. The activity seemed straight-forward. Everyone seemed to have plenty to say, and the listening partners seemed to be interested in hearing more. Is that empathy? If so, maybe it’s surface-level at this point.
The second part of the activity had us coming back together as a large group. Each partner pair reversed roles. The partner had to pretend to be the other person and tell their name story in the first person. As an observer, it was fun to watch, and interesting to hear. But as a participant, when it came to hearing my name story from another’s lips and telling someone else’s name story as though it were my own, I experienced great discomfort.
I thought I’d be able to tell the story confidently but I found myself floundering. I felt inauthentic and shy. I didn’t want to get the story wrong, but I couldn’t remember all of it, so I fumbled through, fudged a few details, and hoped I didn’t misrepresent my partner too terribly. I hoped she didn’t grow to resent me for what I left out, or that she didn’t judge me for what I over-emphasized. I’m not her! What right did I have to be telling her story?
Where is the empathy there? I tried to tell her story truthfully, but I feel like I failed.
In my failure, however, it became obvious how I could be empathetic towards my partner. When I heard my name story from her lips, I wondered, Did I really talk that much about how I love my name? I don’t love love my name!… Do I? I’m embarrassed. Now everyone is going to leave here thinking about how much Evelyn loves her name. And then I thought, That must be one detail she heard that really resonated with her. Maybe she likes my name. Or maybe she likes her name and that’s something we have in common. But then she butchered the pronunciation of my last name, and I thought, I know it has a lot of syllables, Hel-mi-nen, and they are all short vowels, like [hĕl • mĭ • nĕn], but this is my name story! It’s kind of important to get it right!
Got it. Empathy is hard. How do you do it?
3. Empathy needs to be practiced. I had to check myself. Empathy, Evelyn. That’s what we’re talking about here! I calmed down the inner dialogue in my head and looked at her (my) story from the other participants’ point of view. They probably thought it sounded fine! It did sound fine! She did a better job telling my story than I did telling hers! In fact, she did an admirable job of consolidating the disjointed facts I gave her about my name and making a coherent story out of it. Instead of silently berating her, I should be giving her kudos! This all happened in the space of about 60 seconds.
I listened to the rest of the stories wondering what people left out or accidentally misrepresented. None of us were purposely being malicious. We all wanted to do right by our partners.
In the debrief, I found out the extent to which the stories were off. We had given (and been given) details about the wrong number of siblings, the wrong career paths, the wrong order of events. We talked about how that made us feel, and what it means in a larger context when you go out to tell someone else’s story, whether it’s as a news reporter or as a class deliverable or as a casual retelling of a fun event.
It reminded me of an experience I had as a twelve-year-old child that was later recounted in our local newspaper. They got almost every single detail wrong, but the gist of the story—that two kids had almost drowned and were rescued—was right.
The paper’s general readership probably didn’t care, but I did. It’s the details that make the story, and the story was wrong. Was I supposed to be empathetic towards the newspaper reporter, or should she have been more empathetic to me? Years later, I’m still grappling with this question, but I’ve come to a realization that will help me forgive the errors.
4. Empathy is important. No matter how many miles you walk, or whose shoes you’re wearing, you will experience the journey in a different way than another person. You have filters though which you see the world that no one else has.
When someone is telling a story, for example, you may be preoccupied with your own thoughts and miss an important detail. Or maybe a small part of the story resonates, giving it more importance to you. There are hundreds of reasons why your intake of the story is not what other people experience, and even more reasons why they might re-tell it with a completely different spin. You ever play the game of “telephone?” It almost always ends with a drastically different sentence than what the original person said.
It’s funny when you’re expecting the message to be muddled. It’s not so funny when there are serious consequences to getting the story “wrong.”
Empathy, to me, is understanding that sometimes the story will be wrong from your point of view. It is realizing that there are other points of view, all valid from another perspective. It is suspending judgment until you have more context, and even then being gracious because there is always more context.
I’ll say it again. Empathy is important. It’s more than being nice to the person who is mean to you. It’s opening your heart to the possibility that the story could end with kindness.
~ Written by Evelyn Helminen. This post is a personal reflection and is not intended to reflect the views of any other individual, group, organization, or institution.