I was recently in a conversation with a friend who asked my opinion on something related to men, to which I responded with my standard question when people request my thoughts: “What do you think?”

Basically, I feel like I can respond better when I know where you’re coming from: what your thoughts already are and what exactly the gap is for you. Plus it saves me speaking to what you already know.

Her response was, “I’m not a guy, so I can’t speak to that.”

To which I was like, “Wait—what?” My friend was coming from the position that it’s not her place to speak to what she doesn’t personally identify with. But I thought she was misinterpreting an expression that often gets thrown around, “I can’t imagine what it must like to be you.”

I begged to differ (and wrote about that here). Still, it raised the question: 

How do we empathise with people that aren’t like us?

The immediately obvious answer: start with how they’re like us.

But that needs unpacking. First though, allow me to explain why this question is such an important one.

Empathy and me

Understanding empathy is huge for me professionally and personally.

I’m a medical doctor in psychiatry, so the professional reason is obvious: I need to connect with the people I see, like any doctor, but more so in my unique field where the people I see will often be dealing with issues most people might not readily relate to. (Mental illnesses as a group are common but it’s a very large group—plus there’s often all kinds of underlying, and sometimes grim, social issues.)

Personally, it’s important because I don’t think of myself as the most naturally empathetic person. I’m more a thinker than I’m a feeler—which isn’t to say I don’t feel (I very certainly do), but it’s not my initial mode of engaging with reality. I’m more head than heart first.

And like every single human trait it comes with upside (I’m comfortable with ideas) as well as downside (I can come across as unfeeling even with those I care about). But also like all human traits, its upside can be a way to try to address the downside. In my case the upside is that having to struggle with something can make you better at breaking it down for others, because you already had to break it down for your own self.

That breaking down is a lifelong process, but I think I might be doing something right, if the interactions I get to have with patients are any clue. I try to connect with the people I see, to let them feel like they, as humans, met another human who genuinely cared for them and wanted the best for them. You can’t win every time, of course, but I’ve learned a lot from just putting in the effort.

There’s another upside: having to learn things the hard way means, even if you’re a natural at empathy, you might find a useful thing or two here.

So how do I, a person for whom empathy has been something to learn, practice it toward people very different from me?

From experience with love

In conversations around race, I have sometimes asked white women friends to consider their experience of being presumed about based on gender as a way into relating to what it’s like to be presumed about based on race. I can almost see their light go on in their eyes as the bulb explodes.

Of course the two are very different. But there’s a similarity there that can be a starting point into greater understanding.

If we can only speak to what we have personal experience with, our ability to learn from one another will be very severely limited. The problem with the frequent statement, “I can’t imagine how you must feel”, is that imagination lies right at the heart of empathy.

Empathy is an act of imagination.

The corollary also holds: a failure of empathy is very possibly a failure of imagination.

But why would our imagination fail? A simplistic answer might be we’re just not imaginative. But that’s like how many people think their memory is poor, to which memory pros say all the time that the issue for most people isn’t that their memory is poor, but that it’s poorly trained.

Imagination and memory (and many other faculties) are like muscles: everyone has them, but they’re only visible in those who actively develop theirs. So how can we activate our imagination?

I hinted at it in earlier: the starting point is your own experience.

Yes, yes, I know—you’re thinking immediately of all the reasons personal experience is terrible for empathy. But hear me out, okay?

Or, you know what, let’s start right there: with the alarm bells going off in your mind as you think of those tactless people who, when you tell them what you’re dealing with, immediately jump in with their tales of how they’ve been through exactly what you’re talking about. (The nerve!)

You’re right: that’s wrong. It’s also not at all what I mean when I say experience is the starting point for imagining our way into empathy. And the reason it’s not is precisely because of those two words you may have skipped in your alarm.

Starting point.

See, the problem with those people is that they don’t use their experience as a starting point. They use it as all the points. Rather than use their experience as a doorway to enter into yours, they centre theirs and push yours out the door instead—what started as being about your experience ends up being about them and what they’ve been through. (And sure, they’re important, it’s just that this this was your time, and you hadn’t yielded it yet.) 

We together now?

Oh, you have another question? Right. I hear you ask: even if we agreed on experience as a useful starting point, what if you don’t have the experience in question? Doesn’t that bring us back to our original question?

Well, no, not really. Because there’s one experience we all share: the experience of being human. Of being afraid. Of being happy. Of being hopeful. Of being anxious. Even when we can’t easily connect with why someone else is feeling what they feel, we can often connect with the feeling itself.

If we choose to.

That’s another thing about empathy: it’s often a choice. It’s a choice to extend fellow humanity to someone else, to say to them, “Whatever it is you’re dealing with, even if it’s something I haven’t experienced, I recognise that you could be me, that I could be you. I recognise you as human like me.”

As Brené Brown puts it in a great video:

“Empathy is a choice; and it’s a vulnerable choice because in order to connect with you I have to connect with something in myself that knows that feeling.”

Being a choice means, yes, we can choose to withhold it. But it also means we can choose to extend it. We can choose to hear the other person, even if they’re different from us. We can choose to listen to what they’re telling us and think about what in our experience we can use to start to imagine what theirs might feel like. And we can ask question and listen (again) you the answers, and check where we are getting it and where we aren’t.

It’s all about story

If we put it all together, we can say:

Empathy is the sense of connection we have with another person that is triggered by their experience, and then understood by us using our own experience as a starting point to understand what their experience might feel like.

It’s entering into another person’s story as someone genuinely interested in it.

That’s where it’s different from sympathy, which is rooted in the Greek words for “with feeling”. Empathy, on the other hand, comes from the words for “in feeling”. One is just about feeling something with someone, the other is about entering into the experience of that feeling with them. Entering into another person’s experience through the doorway of our own.

Not staying in our own and shouting over at them, but going through ours into theirs.

But there’s something else: the stories we collect become part of our own stories—the experiences of others become part of our own. And by stories I mean all stories, whether those of people we have known in real life or in fiction. There’s a reason fiction is powerful for increasing our ability to empathise, especially for people who naturally struggle with empathising.

But this story root of empathy also explains why we don’t connect with statistics. You’ve probably heard the statement that the suffering of a single person suffering is a tragedy but that of a million is a statistic. Some have even suggested that this is a bug in human nature.

But maybe it’s just the result of the nature of empathy. Empathy is rooted in experience, and experience is rooted in story. That’s why one feature of our favourite stories is that we connect with the main character, and in the very best, we even connect with minor characters. And research has shown that stories activate similar parts of our brains as actually going through experience does: we really experience every story we really connect with. We struggle to empathise with millions of people because that’s just a number. But if those millions are shown through the story of one person? That gives us an experience through which to enter into that of all the others.

Experience is the doorway to empathy, and imagination is the path.

Practicing empathy

We’ve talked a lot of theory, and this is where I’d normally stop. But I’ve come to appreciate that people like practical steps (see? I’m learning!) so how can you apply all of this?

I’ve got 4+1 tips for you, and (if you’re into that sort of thing) together they make up LIP-Sync—and a bonus!

  1. Listen. When someone talks to us about their experience, the first step is to choose to really listen, especially if they’re different from us.
  2. Imagine. Think about what in your experience you can connect with it. If they’ve lost something, can you remember what it felt like to lose something? The important thing here: don’t sit (or stand) there imagining your experience, but use it as a gateway into trying to imagine theirs. As you imagine, try to think: what feeling do you think they might be feeling? (This is important for step 4.)
  3. Pause. Don’t bring your experience up. You don’t know if it applies yet and this is the point that often upsets people. Remember: your experience is only a starting point, a door into theirs. Their experience is where you’re headed. You’re starting from you, but you’re heading for them. Don’t start from them to yourself.
  4. Sync. This is when you actually talk, with the focus being to get in sync with them—to connect. So rather than talk about your experience, trying asking about the feeling from step two. “Does this make you feel afraid/hopeless/anxious/excited/eager?” You can simply ask how it makes them feel, but doing this instead can help in two other ways: if you are right it helps people feel heard (and feeling heard is incredibly helpful for someone who is struggling), but even if you’re wrong it can help them better clarify for you without feeling judged, because they can see you’re trying to hear. Also sometimes people don’t even realise what they’re feeling and you naming it might be a light bulb.
  5. Share (maybe). Sometimes when people feel heard they might ask how you could hear them and if you’ve experienced anything similar. This is when you might mention what experience helped you connect. But even if you do don’t talk about them like they’re the same: they help you enter into theirs, but theirs is still the point.

You’ll notice that nowhere in there did I suggest you offer solutions, or figure out the “right” thing to say (especially when empathising with something unpleasant). There’s sometimes a place for that, like when people actually, you know, ask you for ideas. Far too often, though, we’re too quick to proffer answers when we haven’t taken the time to hear where people even are.

We forget that the first step when someone tells us they are lost isn’t to ask where they want to go, but to determine where they are. It’s not about what we say (which makes it about us again), but about where they are, and what they need—and sometimes what people need is our presence in the silence.

Whose story will you enter and share in this week?


Image courtesy Elle Hughes (via Unsplash).

Published by Doc Ayomide

I’m a medical doctor with specialty training in psychiatry, and I love thinking and writing about what it means to be human.

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