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13 January 2017

The year 2016 was a busy year for the world, to say the very least. In the Philippines, events like the ongoing war on drugs, former President Marcos’ burial at the Libingan ng Mga Bayani, and even trivial things like Mocha Uson’s Facebook posts caused divide between friends, family members, and countrymen. 

In the age of social media where almost everything, including our differences, is documented and displayed, it is harder to limit our circle of influence to just the people with similar perspectives as we have. And, if we truly want to change our world for the better, these differences are things we should welcome.

My new year’s resolution is to adopt empathy for others, and my new year’s wish is that all of us consciously practice empathy too. But, what does empathy really mean? According to SkillsYouNeed.com empathy is “at its simplest, awareness of the feelings and emotions of other people. It is a key element of Emotional Intelligence, the link between self and others, because it is how we as individuals understand what others experience as if we were feeling it ourselves.”

Years ago, scientists studying specific nerve cells in macaque monkeys’ prefrontal cortexes found that the cells fired when the monkeys threw a ball or ate a banana. What’s surprising was the same cells fired when the monkeys watched another monkey performing these acts. These neurons were called the mirror neurons because they allowed monkeys and human beings to mirror another’s actions in their own minds. These remarkable cells are thought to be the basis of empathy. 

Without these mirror neurons, it would be impossible to have empathy and thus, a conscience. The mirror neurons did not get there because we were taught what was right from wrong, but because Mother Nature put them there. She put them there for us to care for each other and ultimately, for our race to survive.

How does practicing empathy help you?

People who are empathetic are motivated to succeed 

Ugo Uche, a licensed professional counselor says, “The very nature of being empathetic involves looking past one’s own perspective in any situation, and understanding as best as possible the needs and experiences of another person.”

In a study, he concluded that empathetic teenagers intentionally succeed in academics not because they want to make good grades, but because their goal is to utilize their knowledge as one of their tools to help others (e.g. complete degree to secure a better future for his/her family; enthusiastically pursues medicine to help those who are sick). On the contrary, teenagers who struggle with empathy tend to be more self-absorbed, thus, their pursuits tend to be based mostly on what they can receive in return – most notably, acceptance and recognition. This attitude seems to backfire as they tend to be less caring towards others and ironically, themselves.

Empathetic people can handle “failure” with grace

People who lack empathy value recognition, making them prone to fearing failure. Because they’re always preoccupied with saving face, they tend to shy away from challenges. When they do fail, they rebel against authority, or those who hold the standard to a task. 

People who are empathetic do a much better job in embracing failure, because there is little ego involved in their tasks. Setbacks, while disappointing, aren’t seen as failures, but rather as a learning experience that they can better themselves. This way of thinking develops a person who is more adept at dealing with disappointment, making it more likely for them to achieve success in their endeavors. 

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Empathetic people become effective influencers

John Maxwell, a respected leadership expert says, “People don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.”

When people feel uncared for and misunderstood, they fall into a state of emotional deprivation. While in that state of mind, they focus on filling that need (to be accepted, understood, etc.) instead of focusing on what has to be done for the good of their family, company, or organization. 

Alternatively, if people are cared for, they feel temporarily complete. That usually crosses over into a feeling of gratefulness and the desire to reciprocate – which allows them to cooperate and be enthusiastic about doing good. 

To start using empathy more effectively, consider practicing the following daily:

1. Talk to a stranger 

Try to see the world from a different perspective. Try to ask your taxi driver how his usual work day goes, or eat with you new co-worker at lunch. You never know what you’re missing until someone tells you about it. 

2. Be present, and listen

People value a good listener. Sometimes, people don’t need an advisor, they just need someone to listen. Try to shut your phone off when your friend is telling you how he felt when his date didn’t show up last weekend. Allow them to know that you’re genuinely interested by acknowledging that you know how they feel. “I feel you, bro” goes a long way. 

3. Know your enemy

“Enemy” could be an exaggeration, but think about the sibling you constantly argue with, or a co-worker who’s competing with you on how to run a project. More likely than not, you already know you’re right, and they’re wrong. Try imagining the war from their point of view. Ask yourself:

What good intentions does this person have?

What fears does he have that causes him to be so difficult to come to an agreement with?

How does he feel when I disagree with him?

What valid arguments are he making that could help our situation?

*****

Just going through this exercise can reduce frustration over your relationships. Muster up the courage to try it! 

“I think we should talk more about our empathy deficit - the ability to put ourselves in someone else's shoes; to see the world through the eyes of those who are different from us - the child who's hungry, the steelworker who's been laid off, the family who lost the entire life they built together when the storm came to town. When you think like this, when you choose to broaden your ambit of concern and empathise with the plight of others, whether they are close friends or distant strangers; it becomes harder not to act; harder not to help.”

- Barrack Obama, 2006