The dictionary defines empathy as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another”. As I listen to the political discourse and watch the actions of many people in various environments, I am struck by the apparent deterioration in the practice of empathy towards one another.
A few months ago, I put on my Twitter account header, “create positive change with each person you meet and every encounter you have.” I don’t pretend to say that I have achieved that goal but it has caused me to think more about how I interact with other people. None of us knows the pain that each person feels or the challenges they may have in their life or even what is going on with them that particular day. Years ago, Stephen Covey wrote about our circle of influence and how we can have a greater impact than we think. As one person we can’t change the whole world but maybe we can make one person’s life better, even briefly, by saying to them implicitly or explicitly “you matter”. That includes ourselves as well. If we don’t feel empathy towards ourselves and our self-perceived shortcomings, how can we show empathy to others.
I am also dismayed by the lack of empathy that sometimes occurs in the workspace between an individual and their peers, their subordinates, their bosses or others they interact with in the office or other places. A few years ago I got caught up in the politics around the rollout of the Healthcare.gov website and I saw people at their best and at their worst as they struggled to deal with the initial failure. In some cases, fear makes people act with greater empathy, in other cases it creates dysfunctional behavior. For me, an important lesson was, try not to judge and show empathy because everyone involved was reacting from a certain frame of reference driven by their own life experiences.
All of us need to try a bit harder to do our part with each encounter we have with another human being, to have empathy, to show more understanding, to calm down the rhetoric, and most of all recognize that in everyone’s life there are struggles and internal insecurities that often manifest themselves in bad words or actions. That is not to say we shouldn’t express opinions or call people out on bad behavior but try to do it in a way that does not denigrate another human being. If we recognize that and we push the pause button before we react, whether in-person or on-line, each of us can make the world a bit better.
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