This is the audio recording of the third reading of week six of Start, entitled How to Grow in Empathy.
“If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive.”
Thus far, we’ve considered the value of empathy in the context of interpersonal relationships. In this reading, we will focus on how to grow in empathy and on the value of empathic communities (after all, this is a curriculum for new Missional Communities!).
Stanford psychologist Jamil Zaki says that, as a society, we are currently amid an empathy deficit. This becomes painfully obvious with just a few minutes of scrolling social media. The reasons for this empathy deficit are nuanced and complex, but one of the primary reasons, according to Zaki, is the use of technology. “Life online does not give us the cues that spark empathy,” Zaki says. These cues include eye contact, observing facial expressions, and hearing someone’s tone of voice.
While there are many benefits to online communication, one of the ways we can help address this “empathy deficit” is by prioritizing real-life, in-person community. In these environments, we aren’t reduced to sound bites or highlight reels (like we are online), and we can observe all the empathy-sparking cues we miss in digital communication. We’re not left to imagine what someone sounds like; we can hear them. And we’re not left to imagine the look on someone’s face.
However, we cannot assume that an in-person community will naturally be empathetic. It’s still possible to be harsh, graceless, condescending, or judgmental while looking someone in the eye.
At Bridgeway, we say that Missional Communities are a place to make friends and make a difference with Jesus at the center. We believe communities that take this simple mission statement to heart will be well-positioned to be empathetic communities. Because we share the goal of making friends, we can value acceptance, curiosity, and understanding over arguing about controversial issues, dominating conversations, or needing to be correct. In short, we can place a high value on connection and fellowship. Because we share the goal of making a difference, we can build our communities around our desire to see the Kingdom of God grow in our context. When we are united by what we are for, the need to hash out all of our differences will fade. And because Jesus is at the center, we can share the value of being Christlike in our engagement with one another. As we’ve seen in previous readings, Jesus exemplified empathy and compassion.
If we are to build empathetic communities, it’s vital that we individually grow in our ability to practice empathy. This may be challenging at first. Anyone who has ever overdone it with a difficult workout when they are not in shape can testify that it causes muscle soreness that can make the next day or two (or three!) unpleasant. That’s a simple example of the difficulty that comes with trying something we are not used to.
Suppose Zaki is right about a societal empathy deficit. In that case, some of us may experience some adverse ‘symptoms’ if we try to practice empathy. We won’t develop sore muscles, but it may feel awkward, unnatural, or even forced. The good news is that empathy is like a muscle in the sense that it can grow. As we practice empathy repeatedly, what first feels awkward will eventually feel natural. Here are some simple ways to begin to grow in empathy:
- Learn to identify your own emotions. This might seem like an odd place to start, but you can’t feel empathy for another person if you don’t know how they are feeling. And it’s tough to identify the feelings of others if you struggle to identify your feelings. A straightforward way to practice this is to set a reminder on your phone to check in with yourself a few times each day. In these moments, pause and think about how you are feeling. Identify the specific emotions you are experiencing (note: “good” is a non-specific emotion). Ask yourself why you are feeling certain emotions to get to the root of your feelings (e.g., you may find that you are feeling angry, but the reason you are mad is that you are afraid. In that case, fear would be the root emotion).
- Quit judging your own emotions. Have you ever felt something and started beating yourself up for it? You’re not the only one. It’s easy to judge our emotions, especially when it seems we are overreacting or being too sensitive. There is undoubtedly value in paying attention to our feelings when it seems they are getting out of control, but if we’re going to grow in empathy, we must stop judging our emotions. Why? Because to have empathy for others, we must learn to accept and identify their emotions without judgment. That is exceedingly difficult to do for others if we don’t already do it ourselves. When you notice an emotion rising in you, check to see if you are suppressing, avoiding, or accepting it. Watch yourself to see if you an engaging in invalidating self-talk. That indicates that you have judged the emotion rather than accepted it. This might seem counterintuitive, but accepting our emotions can help us change our unhealthy emotions more than judging them. This acceptance of ourselves will also increase our ability to accept the emotions of others.
- Get curious and listen to understand rather than respond. A curious spirit is rocket fuel for our sense of empathy. Curiosity helps put us in a posture where we listen to understand rather than respond. Get curious about a person’s background, life experience, or emotional state and listen and ask questions to understand more about these things. You can also get curious about yourself, imagining how you would feel if you were in their position. A helpful question to ask yourself to help grow your curiosity and empathy is, “What is this person asking for from me?” Taking a moment to consider this question can keep us from offering advice to someone who just wants some validation.
- Make eye contact. There are few more powerful ways to recognize someone’s humanity than making eye contact. When we look someone in the eye, we are reminded that they are a real person with fears, dreams, joy, pain, and uncertainty. It can also help us get out of our heads and into a posture where we try to understand their world. Eye contact can also help us with perspective-taking, which is key to showing empathy. In perspective-taking, we try to relate to someone else’s feelings by remembering a time when we had a similar feeling or experience. The purpose of this is not to shift attention onto ourselves but to grow our ability to understand the feelings of another.
- Imagine another person as a child. This is not about condescending. It’s about getting ourselves into a headspace to really feel someone else’s emotions. If you find it difficult to empathize with a person’s situation (perhaps it is wildly unfamiliar to you, or it appears the person is in a challenging situation that is their fault), imagine they are a small child feeling fear, shame, or embarrassment.
- Listen more than you speak. Reflect back what you have heard. James 1 admonishes us to be slow to speak and quick to hear. For most of us, that’s hard. But, as author, professor, and pastor David Augsburger says, “Being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person, they are almost indistinguishable.” Listening not only helps others feel loved by us, but it also gives us more opportunities to empathize with the emotions and experiences of another. Furthermore, reflecting on what we have heard shows we are listening attentively.
As we grow in our ability to give and receive empathy, our community group becomes a transformational environment because we feel safe to show up authentically. Conversations are life-giving, studying scripture together helps us grow in Christlikeness, and navigating inevitable challenges or disagreements is doable. Healthy communities, like healthy families, make us better.
- Have you ever been part of a community you would describe as empathic? What made it so? What was it like?
- Look back over the list of ways to grow in empathy. Which one seems most natural to you? Are there any that would feel odd or unnatural for you to practice?
- What is missing from the list? What are some other ways to grow in empathy?
- Take a moment and read Ephesians 4:29-32. What kind of guidance do those verses offer us for growing in and practicing empathy?
The words “empathic” and “empathetic” are used interchangeably throughout this writing.
Jamil Zaki, “The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World”. YouTube video.
Remember, empathy does not mean agreement. We can believe someone is wrong about something – and even be offended by their perspective – while still maintaining an empathetic, nonjudgmental posture toward their emotion.
Augsburger, David. Caring Enough to Hear and Be Heard