Commenting on a group discussion he and other pastors had with African-American men and women, “We saw that night how little and how shallowly we see. Deep pain can be caused by our shallow vision of others.” Pastor Labberton writes about how we don’t often see the “real” person.* When you don’t see the “real” person, you are not likely to understand them and therefore help them. Many times he writes about how we as humans lack empathy. Often times lack of empathy is the root of a lot of misunderstanding and inaction. He says empathy is “our capacity to perceive and at least partially enter into someone else’s reality”.
Since my trade is human communication, I want to offer some keys to developing empathy. Maybe this post will shine some light on what can be done to connect people. Maybe in the middle of Labberton’s discussion about what we lack, we can explore what we can have, if we try.
You have to see value in knowing another’s perspective. Certainly people who study communication place a premium value on empathy. Ron Adler and Russell Proctor report that researchers label empathy as the most important aspect of communication competence.**
But what are the foundations of empathy?
Believe it or not, sharing your ideas with others is a basic foundation. To understand someone else, you have to exchange ideas. Someone who is introverted will find it harder to develop relationships with others. Maybe for them sharing is too hard; they don’t think there is value in their thoughts and feelings or they just lack confidence that they can express themselves. But communication researchers have found that sharing begets sharing.
We have found that if information is appropriate [not too personal or private] others will receive it and respond back with information of their own. If the person you are sharing with is someone you admire or desire to have a friendship or relationship with, the sharing you have with them will bond you, a so called unwritten pact will develop between you and them. The information you share could be more private as you continue your relationship. Certainly if you receive personal information from another, it is essential to not share that information if you want to have a continuing relationship. How you handle shared private information is a key to building trust between you and others and we know that trust is a cornerstone to a healthy relationship. Over time, a close relationship will yield more private information as people feel free to put down some of their public façade. The more you bond with someone else, the more you will get to know them on a deeper level.
A second foundational idea is the communication skill of listening. This means giving careful and thoughtful attention to the messages we receive. It is the act of decoding the meaning of others using our minds. The focus is often on the words we hear but that will only get you partial meaning. How a person delivers their message is important too, the tone of voice and their body language.
Too often people get confused about listening; they think that hearing a message is good enough, it is not. It is an old communication adage that people can hear without listening; they do it all the time. To really communicate with someone, you have to put all your mental faculties into the process of understanding another’s message.
This means that a good listener has to fight the tendency to be distracted by internal or external factors. We all have concerns or worries and if we are trying to listen, those thoughts can overpower the message coming from someone else. Sometimes we have messages we want to say back and we practice those messages while we are listening to others. This can interfere with comprehending what another person is saying to us. Environmental distractions can easily take us away from attending to a message, a colorful sight, a powerful smell or a loud sound can interrupt listening. Too often people who don’t know much about communication will say that listening is no big deal; anyone can do it. That is not the case. Many people are horrible listeners, only getting parts of a message, or maybe not any of it at all. One of my feelings about listening is that really trying to listen to someone’s message is one of the best gifts you can give them.
Earlier I wrote you have to see value in knowing another’s perspective. I would go further than that. To have empathy you have to value other people. If you don’t value other people you won’t have empathy because you don’t care about them. Too often in our world we see someone who has no money and dresses in a shabby manner and we discount their value. For some it is skin color. We can’t get past the fact that there are people who have different skin tones. Some devalue certain people based on race. Ethnocentrism is common in our world, the idea that our culture is much better than others. This is a major negative factor as people from other cultures have ideas to express but they are worth little; they are not from “here.”
Certainly, sharing ideas and feelings is essential to getting to know others. Listening means so much to the communication process because the act of listening means messages are being decoded and ideas are being exchanged.
But the real cornerstone of empathy may be the value you place on your fellow human beings. If you value others, you will share your ideas and you will allow others to share their ideas with you. If you value others, you will listen to them, valuing their message enough to work at understanding it.
Pastor Labberton spends so many pages writing about our need to help the poor and indeed the scripture to support his thesis is there.
“He who oppresses the poor taunts his Maker, but he who is gracious to the needy honors Him.”
Certainly getting to know the poor will help you fill their needs. It can be done with sharing, listening, valuing and respecting, all leading to empathy.
*The Dangerous Act of Loving Your Neighbor
**Looking Out Looking In