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Cultivating empathy

By Sakuni Weerasinghe

With everything going on in the country and the world over, we have all been operating on edge lately; you may notice how often in conversations our minds are quick to draw comparisons. For instance, when your friend tells you her financial concerns over continuing her tuition classes owing to the pay cuts resulting from facing a pandemic, if your immediate response is “aiyo owa monawada” (oh, that’s nothing), and you go on to bombard her with your experiences, what you are doing is minimising and invalidating her experience.

You may feel a tinge of discomfort even reading this as it relates to you, but all of us have done this at some point. What’s important is that we choose to be aware of the instances this happens and try to minimise its occurrence by cultivating empathy.

Empathy can be simply defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. From a biological standpoint, empathy can be explained through the activity of mirror neurons (nerve cells). The firing of mirror neurons, discovered by Giacomo Rizzolatti, causes a person to reflect back on an emotion or behaviour which is observed in someone else. This explains why we feel pain when watching someone else get an injection. These mirror neuron systems create a circuitry between the two individuals which makes the emotions contagious, thereby allowing the two individuals to relate on a deeper level. Hence, when we listen with empathy, we get to tap into their experiences as if they were our own.

Daniel Goleman, the author of Social Intelligence, suggests that empathy could be interpreted in three distinctive ways: Knowing another person’s feelings, feeling what the other person feels, and responding compassionately to another’s distress. This is akin to Paul Ekman’s classification of empathy as cognitive empathy, emotional empathy, and compassionate empathy. While cognitive empathy is tremendously helpful in understanding the thought process of another person, it is emotional empathy that allows us to really feel the emotions of the other and subsequently help them due to compassionate empathy. It is emotional empathy that permits you to feel the frustration of your friend struggling with her finances, and the fear of your parents who are concerned for the health of the family following the Covid-19 outbreak.

Empathy is not just about feeling the same as the other person; it is imperative that we evoke a feeling of being listened to and understood in the other. For this reason, we reflect. We paraphrase in our own terms what we understood about the other; we reflect back the feelings, letting the other person clarify them, all in an effort to wholly understand the other. Paraphrasing would be you telling your friend: “You could not possibly foresee the pay cuts so it’s difficult managing with your current income right now.” This response allows you to further explore her thoughts and feelings without putting her down, blaming her, or offering a quick-fix piece of advice, the psychological equivalent of paracetamol.

In reading this, if you’re slowly starting to become aware that you have been engaging in similar responses, now’s the time to flip the switch. The great part about empathy is that it is a skill that can be learned, and fine-tuned with plenty of practice. So next time your friend comes to you to express themselves, practise your skills of empathy with as much compassion as you can muster.

Let’s see a few different ways in which we can cultivate empathy:

Listen actively

Active listening requires more than listening to the spoken word. When you listen actively, you listen to the tone of voice, the expressions on the other person’s face, their body language, the silences, and in short you listen to what is being said and how it is being said. Active listening also requires you to convey that the other person has been listened to. For example, by nodding when appropriate, or through appropriate emotional expression, or using short statements, summaries, or paraphrases of what was said. Active listening requires committed, non-reactive listening by being actively engaged with the other person.

Validate emotions

Sometimes the mere act of acknowledging the other person’s emotions can go a long way. Often enough, opening up about one’s state of mind is difficult as it brings about feelings of shame and guilt, and when these emotions are validated, it gives them the sense that their feelings are real and, most importantly, that it is okay to feel. This provides a space for them to explore themselves further and grow as a result of it. Never try to minimise their emotional experience by questioning their feelings or carrying a judgmental tone in discussions, and try to lessen the use of statements like: “Owa stress wenna oney dewalda!”(are those even things to be stressed about!)

Remain curious about others’ experience

Parents will easily tell you the question that their children ask most often: “Why?” At a young age, we’re often curious about everything and anything and we seek to explore. As adults, we ought to retain some of that curiosity about the experiences of other people and ask appropriate questions. Not in the form of gossip, but rather retain a sense of inquisitiveness about how other people manage their lives, how they see the world, and their perspectives on matters. When you expand your networks and meet people who are different from you, you get to broaden your mind and deeply understand the concerns that exist in the world that have so far remained out of your sight. This allows you to develop empathy towards the experiences of those who starkly differ from you.

Remain grounded in the truth that we are prone to err as humans

Acknowledging our humanness and how we can mess things up at times allows us to be more compassionate and adopt a non-judgmental stance in conversations. This permits us to be more open-minded. In others noticing this quality about us, they feel safer opening up to us and digging deeper into their inner experience. This presents us with a wonderful opportunity to grow our understanding of the other and empathise with the other.