We live among a vast constellation of minds. Each mind is an existential singularity, and a product of its experiences, genetics and biology. Subsequently, each mind has its own perspective on the world, its inhabitants, its events and its attributes. When minds congregate and resonate on a shared cause, they can form powerful, influential and world-moving organisations. But when minds conflict, we see animosity, violence and murder. Furthermore, when multiple resonant minds conflict with other minds, catastrophe looms, wars rage and cities fall.
Interestingly, the very attribute of life which allows each human to be as unique and fascinating as another is the same attribute that causes great conflicts and wars. The conundrum then, is that humans are unlikely to succeed alone. In the modern day, where we have evolved over thousands of years from tribal hunter-gatherers to dwell in dense cities and civilizations, it is much more difficult to escape the constant need for interacting and finding commonalities with others.
A most powerful cognitive tool we can use to account for this is empathy.
EMPATHY IS A MINDSET
The scope of empathy extends beyond just understanding how others feel when in an unfortunate situation. It is a mindset that is geared towards developing a better understanding of the world, why things happen, and why people behave in the way they do. It is the act of mentally stepping outside one’s own singular conscience; feelings, thoughts and perspectives and stepping into the feelings, thoughts and perspectives of someone else, or a collective group with a shared cause or belief.
It is not necessary to completely understand the logic and origin of another person’s feelings and behaviour to empathise, but at the very least it is necessary to accept and appreciate that they are different, and that they don’t necessarily hold the same methodology of interpreting the world as you do. And more importantly, that there is no such thing as a singularly correct interpretation of the world.
If I were to frame it more simply:
Empathy is understanding, or realising and accepting that you don’t understand.
The latter portion, ‘realising and accepting’, is just as important as the first. This is what I shall delve into next.
EMPATHY BREAKS DOWN BARRIERS
The greatest measure of a person is not in their ability to respect and tolerate those who are on the same wavelength as them, but also those who are not. This includes those with opposing views, principles that they find ludicrous, and who have little in common to them. I find that this is a requirement for a person who has truly conquered themselves, as per my favourite Lao Tzu saying:
He who conquers other is strong, he who conquers himself is mighty.
We subconsciously form mental and physical barriers with people who are unlike us, and in the worst cases, we resort to mocking those whose behaviour, opinions and principles we don’t understand. These barriers may manifest in the form of avoidance, ignorance and miscommunication. This arises out of a lack of empathy, and is something that all humans are guilty of to varying degrees.
The root of this is in the tendency to appreciate only perspectives that make sense to us. Once we introspect (build self-awareness) on this habit, and let go of our expectations on others to conform to our interpretations of the world, and focus more on understanding the reasons for these differences in interpretations, we find that this opens up our mind, opens up opportunities to learn from people who are unlike us, and greatly enriches the depth and quality of relationships we have with others.
EMPATHY IN DEALING WITH HOSTILITY
Empathy is just as much about understanding the origin of hostility and criticism from others, and shielding ourselves from unnecessarily mental anguish, as it is about shielding others from our own negative judgements.
Humans are naturally irrational and emotional. There is no human who is perfectly logical, and hence no human who harbours the ability to judge another in a way which is perfect and true. Similarly, there is no human other than yourself, who feels what you feel, sees what you see, and experiences exactly what you have experienced, and hence, there is no human who has complete access to the required information to make an accurate judgement of your thoughts and behaviour.
Essentially, this means that no human being is worth your sorrow, whether it be from a philosophical or scientific perspective (they both arrive at this same conclusion). Spare a moment to think about it; allowing yourself the displeasure of negative feelings over the actions of another imperfect, irrational human being, who hasn’t the slightest idea on the nature of your mind or your experiences, seems nonsensical!
You are your best mentor. When you receive criticism that may be unwarranted or harsh, you should understand that they originate from a person’s own unique experiences and perspectives, which aren’t necessarily (nor commonly) accurate or logical. In this situation, it is recommended to glean any constructive learning from the criticism (and discard the remaining), make an honest assessment of yourself against this, and then strive to improve the aspects which you see to be valid and true.
EMPATHY DISSOLVES HATRED
When we develop a mindset of empathy, we find that holding feelings of hatred becomes impossible. Hatred and empathy cannot co-exist. Hatred arises purely out of a misunderstanding, a lack of acceptance of what causes people to be who they are, or a situation to be what it is.
When we hate, we dwell on the assumption that the person has made an entirely conscious decision to perform an act which greatly harms us, or something we love and cherish. However, when we dig deeper into what caused such an event to happen – there is always reason. Our mistake is often in questioning the validity of the reason for the behaviour.
Reasons need not be logical or moral, but they are still as valid. You may not understand why a murderer has chosen to commit such an act, but that does not invalidate the authenticity of the reason behind it. Sadly, reasons aren’t necessarily constrained within a framework of morality to be valid, and neither is there a universal standard in morality. A murderer may choose to murder for underlying reasons ranging from a neuro-psychopathic mindset (for which blame can only be apportioned to biology/ genetics) to greed or a disturbed mind brought on by childhood or other influences.
EMPATHY ENABLES LEADERSHIP
You cannot lead others if you do not understand what engages them. The most common trait that I observe in ineffective leaders is their inability to engage others, not due to a lack of technical competence, but a lack of willingness to understand and adapt to the needs and desires of their colleagues.
Leaders who need to pull others with a tether are not leading. True leadership is evident when those you seek to lead walk freely and willingly, by your side in the direction that aligns with the vision.
In order to achieve this, one must understand what matters to them. What makes them happy? What empowers them? What do they dream to achieve? The vision must also resonate with them. Indeed, in practice this is much easier said than done, and a few may be very difficult to engage – at which point it may be appropriate to discuss alternate jobs / roles that may make them happier.
EMPATHY AND MINDFULNESS
Our ability to practice empathy is temporarily destroyed when we enter a state of unrest; when our mind and body senses danger, or feel it has been attacked. In the modern world, this most commonly happens purely psychologically. There is no real physical danger, but we may have been verbally attacked, or we are facing a situation which our brain perceives to be dangerous, perhaps due to an unfortunate past experience. Interestingly, we respond to both physical and psychological dangers in the same way; we get anxious, in high alert and experience a rush of adrenaline – commonly known as the ‘fight or flight’ response.
When this happens, we will immediately lose the ability to empathise, and instead resort to our pre-programmed way of responding, corresponding to the area of the brain where blood rushes first. In this state, we may become defensive, aggressive, argumentative or hostile. The initial onset of this is almost unavoidable, but it can be caught through self-awareness and corrected almost immediately.
When you sense the onset of this, it’s important to reset your thoughts back to a stable state. The details of this is beyond the scope of this article, but books that may help you include The Chimp Paradox and The Power of Now.
“The world doesn’t revolve around you”
Despite the common utterance of the above, the reality is that it does! Or at least, that’s how we perceive it to. The world revolves around each one of us. We see only what surrounds us. We feel only the breeze on our skin, not on others. We are at the centre of existence, because existence is rendered by our own conscience.
When another person cares to enter our realm and understand our feelings, our wants and needs, and appreciate the unique value that we bring to their world, it brings us great feelings of contentment. This is why we seek love. This is why we seek friends who resonate with us, who hold the same values, temperament and outlook on life. This is why we respond positively to those who show genuine interest in us. This is why empathy is powerful.
Empathy is used in many occasions and situations, whether consciously or not. Top neurologists use empathy to treat their patients, by simply talking to them to identify indicative feelings and cognitive thinking patterns. Smart businesses use empathy to understand their potential customers and the pain points that need to be resolved. Millions of people use empathy every day to connect with and influence others.
The greatest beneficiary in a person developing a mindset of empathy is themselves. People who empathise hate less and appreciate more. They are better able to see value in and learn from every person. They are perturbed less by hostile inflictions from others. They are more open-minded, and they are free, and self-conquered.