Author: Dr. Ali Khwaja

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There is a lot of difference between sympathy and empathy – Empathy is defined as “putting yourself in the other person’s shoes.” But we cannot put ourselves in the other person’s shoes till we remove our own i.e. till we stop thinking from our point of view, and try to understand what the other person is going through.

Understanding the other person is in two parts

  1. Understanding the feelings the other person is going through right now
  2. The upbringing and indoctrination that shapes his thinking and his actions.

Only when we understand both these issues can we truly empathize.

Please remember that empathizing is NOT “trying to feel what the other person is going through”. You cannot feel either her pain or her happiness. You are an individual with your own feelings and attitudes. Empathy is “understanding” what the other person is going through, without being judgmental, without labeling or allowing your own values and attitudes to come in between.

Empathy is the strongest bridge for human relationships. We are all looking for someone who understands us and is willing to be with us unconditionally. Unconditional support only means supporting the person, not necessarily his actions.

Very often when we keep asking in frustration “why does he behave that way?” actually we are not asking a question, we are making a statement. We do not want to really know why he is behaving that way. We only want to express our own inability to concur with his behavior. The focus of that question is on ourselves, not on the person in question.

When you empathize, you only “understand” the person, you don’t necessarily have to “agree” with him. Empathizing helps you to decide how to deal with the person, because you are not just going by his actions, but also understanding his intentions, and the reason for his behavior.

The other point to keep in mind is that – it is not enough to FEEL empathetic towards a person, you should also EXPRESS it to him. He needs to be reassured that you understand him (or in the worst case, are at least TRYING to understand him). Never pretend to understand when you actually do not. If you just cannot empathize with a particular individual, just tactfully close the interaction instead of being a hypocrite.

Keep in mind that empathy helps YOU, not only the other person – it is not a charitable act, it helps you feel better with your own life.

Do the following exercises:
Exer 1: Review at least one incident each when you gave unconditional empathy to someone, and when you didn’t. Introspect WHY you could not empathize in the 2 nd case.
Exer 2: Write down two or three real empathetic statements you made to people recently, and review the intensity of the empathy in that statement (did you really show your understanding of HER feelings?) If possible, check how they felt about your statement.
Exer 3: Check incidences where you were Feeling empathy and where you were extending it to Expressing empathy. Ask yourself why in the first case you did not convert the empathetic feeling to expression.
Exer 4: list out the areas (or persons, or type of persons) when you just cannot empathize. Think how you would handle if such a situation or person seeks emotional support from you.

Keep doing these exercises periodically !

About the author

This website was initially conceived and designed by the late Sitaram N
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