Empathy and Understanding

When engaging with others, it is critical to practice empathy and understanding. But what is empathy? What does it look like? What can we do? Read on to learn the answers to these questions and more.

By Edith Bachmann and Tanya Postian

“You never truly know someone until you’ve stood in their shoes and walked around in them.” We’ve all heard the saying before, or at least some form of it. It touches on something so critical to the human experience: Empathy. It’s simply “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.”  We often approach empathy only in times of distress; when your younger sibling scrapes their knee or when your friend gets a bad grade. Knowing when to approach empathy in regards to another person’s culture may be a habit that requires a bit more effort, but being able to see the thread that connects us all, can enrich our communication and fortify our relationships with others. It’s important to remember that despite all of our differences, whether it be culture, language, or age, we all experience emotions of joy, sorrow, hope, and despair. 

Why is empathy important?

Being able to empathize with others in school, work, or around the dinner table is a vital skill that allows us to communicate effectively with others. The pandemic may make people feel distant from one another, but it is important to remember that we are still citizens of our communities and the world. As a citizen of the world, part of our responsibility is to be aware of others around us and support those who may experience hardships that we are unfamiliar with. 

In a study conducted by researchers at Penn State and the University of Toronto, it was found that people often avoid empathy because they believe that it requires too much effort, will be too mentally draining, makes them feel insecure and stressed, or simply feel they are not “good” at it. This belief causes them to avoid situations that require them to imagine what life is like for others. 

What does empathy look like?

While it may seem a bit daunting or you may feel insecure about your abilities, we all have the ability to be compassionate. Empathy is like any other skill, whether it be riding a bike or learning a language, it requires practice and effort in order to be perfected. It is important to encourage yourself and others to be empathetic to better the world around you. One of the most crucial steps in becoming more empathetic is changing your mindset. This means perhaps feeling uncomfortable, but ultimately deciding to make an effort to put yourself out there and be open to new experiences. This may look like initiating a conversation with someone that you have not spoken to before and then be willing to listen to what they have to say. For example, when traveling to a different country, you can learn so much by listening to someone else’s story and trying to understand their point of view. When experiencing these different cultures and ways of life, it is critical to be respectful even if you may not agree with their opinions.   

Empathy vs Sympathy

After all this discussion on what empathy looks like, let’s clear up a common misconception: that empathy and sympathy are the same thing. The key distinction between them is that when one is empathetic, they experience and understand a range of emotions while sympathy is often used in situations of emotional pain. It can be said that sympathy only runs surface-deep. When displaying sympathy, people often don’t actually feel the same pain of others, but they can still recognize that the situation is painful in a general sense. 

Sympathy often carries a connotation of superiority when compared to empathy. For example, in sympathy, one recognizes the negative experience of another but also makes it apparent that they are not in a similar painful or difficult situation, therefore differentiating themselves from the other person.

Empathy is a bit more complicated. It takes the actions associated with sympathy and goes one step further. After recognizing the painful or traumatic situation, through emotive action, one actually experiences the other’s feelings. Empathic action is the third step in the process of empathy, where instead of minimizing another’s pain and invalidating their feelings, one does nothing. While this may sound counterintuitive, by not trying to offer solutions or making promises that you cannot keep, you recognize the severity of the situation and understand that your role is sometimes to only be a shoulder to cry on. One example of empathy is reflective listening, where one lets the other person say what they need to say, without interruption or judgment. It is the opposite of putting words in other people’s mouths (Six Seconds). 

Here are examples of what sympathetic and empathic conversations might look like in action: 

Sympathy

“How was your first day of school?”

“It was awful. Nobody could understand my accent and the teachers all mispronounced my name.”

“Oh, that sucks. I’m sure it’ll be better tomorrow. At least you didn’t forget your lunch at home like me. I’m starving!” 

Empathy

“How was your first day of school?”

“It was awful. Nobody could understand my accent and the teachers all mispronounced my name.”

“That sounds awful. I know when I transferred here I had a hard time too. If you ever want to talk about anything, I’m here for you.” 

“Thanks, I appreciate it. You wanna eat lunch together?”

“Sure! Oh wait — I forgot my lunch at home! Oh no!”

Cultivating understanding 

After all this discussion on empathy, we cannot neglect the important trait of understanding. Much like empathy, cultivating understanding, especially with regards to other cultures involves a willingness to start and learn from conversations. As part of this and your role as a global citizen, it is crucial that you are aware of current events or news around the world. This may mean checking out the International section of the news every once in a while or even looking at a news source from outside of the United States. 

Being aware of and acknowledging the background of others 

On your endeavors as you go out and meet new people of different cultures and backgrounds, carry with you tools of communication and understanding. It is likely you will meet people who you have very little in common with or perhaps have a lot in common with, regardless, recognizing the difference in your cultures and being able to appreciate those differences is one of the most valuable skills you can have. 

Becoming a more empathetic individual is not all that is needed in becoming more culturally competent and aware. Curiosity, wordly view, adaptability, and flexibility are all admirable characteristics in pursuing a new culturally inclusive mindset, but without empathy, this goal would be unattainable. 

Edith Bachmann and Tanya Postian are members of the Cultural Exchange Club that aims to promote cultural understanding and explore different cultures. This article is a part of a series written by members of the Cultural Exchange club to encourage our community to adopt these attributes to become more culturally aware citizens.