What is empathy?

There’s a lot of talk about being kind and empathy recently. But what exactly is empathy? The Oxford Dictionary defines empathy as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another”. This is not to be confused with sympathy where you may feel bad for what someone is going through. As I am naturally empathetic, I pick up on subtle non-verbal communication easily and often feel emotions deeply. The same can be said for when I am watching the news or if I walk into a room and can sense unrest. Although as a child I was told “not to be so sensitive” or ‘just forget about it” and it can be quite exhausting at times, I do feel that it has helped me in many situations.

Why is it important?

Empathy allows us to read people correctly, by observing body language and subtle cues. This means that we no longer just need to rely on what a person is saying. It could help us to stay out of danger at times, as it could allow you to accurately read a situation. To me, on a day to day basis empathy allows us to observe and read body language with precision, put ourselves in someones shoes and genuinely share the feelings of another person. It can therefore can influence our actions towards others, despite our differences and help to build trust and relationships with others. It allows us to decide whether to intervene or leave some situations as they are.

How do you encourage empathy?

Although for some empathy comes quite intuitively, like any skill it can be developed and the more you practice the better you get. There’s a lot of negativity recently around social media use, a lack of social interaction and empathy. Emiliana Simon-Thomas, science director at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center wrote in a blog that “Too much screen time and not enough face-to-face communication gives us fewer chances to practice empathy”. I think that can be true for a lot of face to face communication. We need to continually practice it to be great at it and social media limits that face to face communication. It’s this type of communication that allows us to practice reading subtle cues.

So how can we help? As parents we are role models, so our children are always watching to see how we respond to situations and are probably trying to read our body language too. Some things I try to adopt are:

  • Telling my daughter how I am feeling at times, even though I find this tricky. This is so she has the vocabulary to communicate and interpret her own and others feelings.
  • I encourage my daughter to care for things. Whether that be our family pet, wildlife or the garden. This not only encourages responsibility, but also allows a connection to something that is fragile and needs care and consideration. It keeps her away from a screen and she gets to learn that not everything will go to plan.
  • We have conversations about caring for others, how certain actions may make someone may feel, the environment, cause and effect. We discuss topics as they arise and they are often a topic of conversation around the dinner table.
  • We limit screen time and encourage face to face interactions and conversations in a range of settings so that my daughter gets to practice and be comfortable with this.

If you want a practical guide for your daughter to work on empathy skills, have a look here (affiliate). Or give us a like on facebook to read more like this.

Disclaimer: The information contained in this blog is of a general nature and is a reflection of my own personal experiences and thoughts, as well as an inclusion of quotations from other references. This should not be considered as individual advice.