In our last post, we talked about a study showing that teens today are less empathetic than they were in the past. Empathy means to be able to see things from another person’s point of view and to be able to understand their trials and challenges. Being empathetic is really important if you want to be Christ-like, because it is what allows us to be kind and to make compassionate choices. Here are ten steps you can take to stand out of the crowd when it comes to empathy.
A lot of times, when we’re talking, we’re busy thinking up what we’re going to say next and we aren’t really listening to what the other person is saying. Listen deeply to what someone else is saying. Ask questions to learn even more. Choose questions that will help you understand what that person is saying, feeling, and thinking. “Were you scared?” “How would you handle that if it were up to you?” You’ll get a reputation for being the world’s best conversationalist and people will know you care about them—making for some great friendships. In the process, you’ll learn more about how others feel about things and this will make you more empathetic.
- Get to know people who are different from you.
Be careful about this. If you choose friends who drink or use drugs, for instance, you could find yourself in a lot of trouble. Choose good quality friends, but choose them because they aren’t like you sometimes. For instance, if you’ve never had to worry much about whether or not your family will have enough food to get through the week, find someone at school who is in that situation and then spend time really understanding what life is like for that person. Don’t be judgmental—just listen, learn, and if possible, help. If you love to read, find someone who struggles to read. If you’re a great athlete, get to know the kid who is picked last for the team every single time.
- Read books that show things from a different point of view.
One author wrote two children’s books. They were the same story, but one told it through the eyes of a child who was being bullied and the other book showed the story through the eyes of the bully. Children who read both were able to see both sides of the story and better understood the trials that might lead someone to becoming a bully. It didn’t make bullying right, but the children were able to understand him and to feel sorry for him. A book can give you insights into someone else’s mind, even if it’s fiction.
- Do volunteer work.
When you are working with people who face a special challenge, you learn a great deal about their lives. If you go into the project with an open mind and loving heart, you’ll begin to develop empathy for them. Helping teach children to read who found it hard gave me empathy for what it’s like to not be able to read. I listened to them talk about their humiliation and their pain and as we worked together, I also learned to celebrate their small steps. Every volunteer project I do teaches me empathy for new things.
As a writer, I have to be able to see a story from the point of view of every character in order to make them come to life. Right now I’m struggling to understand a character I don’t really like very much. As I close my eyes and see things the way he does, he becomes a more sympathetic character to me. I like him much more now than I did when he first wandered into my story just because I understand him better. You don’t have to write a story, but try to picture yourself in the situation you don’t have empathy for just yet. How would you feel? What would you be afraid of? How would you want others to treat you? When it’s you, the situation seems different than when it’s someone else.
Okay, to develop real empathy, you’re going to have to get off the computer and out into the world. Have fun!