The Importance of Empathy: How to Strengthen Our Ability to Be Empathic? (page 3)

By — Dr. Robert Brooks
Updated on Mar 16, 2009

Given these obstacles, what is it that we can do to strengthen our ability to be empathic? What follows are some guidelines and exercises. While they may be based on commonsense, they require practice and diligence and sometimes the input or feedback of another person who can offer an objective view. However, I believe that if we can keep these guidelines in focus, we can achieve greater empathy.

1. Accept that Empathy is a Vital Skill for Successful Relationships: This acceptance typically demands that we must be very clear about what empathy is and is not. Some people confuse being empathic with giving in or not being assertive. Empathy has nothing to do with giving in. One can be empathic and yet disagree with another person. One can be empathic and validate what another person is saying, but have an entirely different view of the situation. For instance, an excellent teacher I knew was accused by one of her students of not being fair when he had to serve detention for insulting other students. He had already been given a warning. Rather than become defensive and recite a litany of examples of things that this student had done to warrant detention, the teacher said, “I know you think I’m not fair and I’m glad you could tell. Since that is how you feel, I think it’s important for us to review what led up to the detention, especially since I would not like to see it happen again and I don’t want you to think I’m not being fair.” By first validating the student’s perception, the teacher created a climate in which this student was less defensive and more open to listening to the teacher’s point of view, resulting in the student eventually taking responsibility for his own behavior.

2. Exercise, Exercise, Exercise: In my workshops I use the following exercise both to highlight the importance of empathy and to provide participants with an activity to strengthen their ability to be empathic. If my talk is for teachers, I ask them to use a few words to describe a teacher they liked and a few words to describe a teacher they did not like when they were students. I then observe that just as they have words to describe their teachers, their students have words to describe them. I next say, “What if I interviewed your students and asked them to describe you. What words would you hope they use to describe you? What words would they actually use? How close would the words you hope they use be to the words they actually use?” I also ask them to think about what changes they have to make so that the actual descriptions would be closer to the desired descriptions.

Similarly, in my presentations for parents or healthcare professionals or business leaders, I ask them to reflect upon how their children or clients/patients or employees would describe them and how they hoped they would describe them. What this exercise accomplishes is to emphasize that every time we interact with others they form an image of us and that this image will play a large role in determining how comfortably and cooperatively they will relate to us. By asking how others see us, it vividly calls attention to the significance of empathy. I have had many people say to me that they kept the questions involved in these exercises in mind as they interacted with their children or students or employees or patients and that by doing so it enhanced these relationships.

3. Treat Others as We Would Want to Be Treated: Closely linked to the exercises I prescribe is a question we must consider as we interact with others, namely, “When we say or do things with our child (student, employee, patient), would we want anyone to say or do things to us in the same way?” I recall observing a young child spilling a glass of milk in a restaurant. In response, his father slapped his hand and said, “What’s the matter with you? You never think about what you’re doing. Use your brains!” I wondered how that father would have felt if he had spilled something, and someone had slapped his hand and yelled at him. Would the father have learned anything or would he mainly be resentful? Or, let’s take the earlier example of the manager who responded to someone disagreeing with him by accusing that person of having “problems with authority.” How would this manager feel if his boss disagreed with something he said by dismissing his comments and yelling, “You have trouble with authority.” As another example, which I described in my last column, how would teachers who constantly exhorted students who were struggling in school to “try harder” feel if they were having difficulty with aspects of their job and instead of offering support their principal said, “You wouldn’t have these problems if you tried harder and put in more effort!”?

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