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Lessons in Empathy –Tips on how to put yourself in someone else’s shoes

Clipart Illustration of Two Orange People On Blue Puzzle Pieces,When I was younger and in a conflict with a friend, I would always vent to my mom. I would often, as most of us do, blame the other person and make generalizations and assumptions about why my friend was acting, saying, and doing those things to me (always intentionally in my eyes). Once I would finish venting, my Mom would then take on the role of devil’s advocate. At the time, this drove me nuts because in my dramatic pre-teen/teen years, I just wanted her to take my side. I had no idea this little exercise she continuously did would end up benefiting me not only in my education but also in my life.

What is empathy and why is it important?

Merriam-Webster defines empathy as “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.” In other words, empathy is the ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes. In an article adapted from Bruna Martinuzzi’s book: The Leader as a Mensch: Become the Kind of Person Others Want to Follow found on Mindtools.com he explains that empathy, “Allows us to create bonds of trust, it gives us insights into what others may be feeling or thinking; it helps us understand how or why others are reacting to situations, it sharpens our “people acumen” and it informs our decisions.” In a conflict, if you take the time to try and recognize where the other person is coming from, you can gain an alternative perspective.

How can you be more empathetic?

One step towards being more empathetic is to listen to the other person when they are speaking. Mike Robbins contributor to the HuffPost Healthy Living blog explains, “Asking people how they truly feel, what’s really going on in their world, AND listening to how they respond (without judgment) are some of the best things we can do to express our empathy for the people around us.” Often in conflict, we stop listening to one another because we are too absorbed in our thoughts and feelings or because we are preparing a response.

The next step suggested by Bruna Martinuzzi is, “Take a personal interest in people. Show people that you care, and [have a] genuine curiosity about their lives. Ask them questions about their hobbies, their challenges, their families, their aspirations.” By taking the time to ask questions and be inquisitive about the other person’s life, you are getting to know them and showing that you care, which builds trust and rapport and makes it easier to step into their shoes if a conflict should arise.

The final step suggested by Reginald Adkins, a contributor on LifeHack.org, to being more empathetic is to “Assure you’re understanding. Ask clarifying questions and restate what you perceive the speaker to be saying.” In order for you to be empathetic, you must make sure that you comprehend the message the person is trying to convey. Sometimes it can be helpful to regurgitate back to the person what you heard. If what you heard and what they said are not matching up, allow them to clarify further. While doing this may seem tedious, it ensures that no miscommunication occurs and that you have a clear understanding of that person’s perspective, which then allows you to be more empathetic.

It is always in hindsight that we can see the lessons our parents were trying to teach us. I can remember a time in college when I was in a conflict and I automatically stopped and thought, where are they coming from? In that moment, I recognized what my Mom had been doing all those years; she had been teaching me to be empathic.

Abigail Clark

Graduate Student Intern,

University of Baltimore- Negotiation and Conflict Management Program

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