The Importance of Empathy

The Importance of Empathy by Susan Ingram

{3:54 minutes to read}

In my last blog, entitled Whatever Happened to Civility, I discussed some of the basic tenets that hopefully form the framework of our relationships with others. These include:

  • Acknowledging others;
  • Listening;
  • Respecting others;
  • Being inclusive;
  • Accepting and giving praise; and
  • Speaking kindly.

So what is the basic quality that will nurture and support civility among people? That quality is called Empathy.

Basically, empathy is the ability to understand and feel another person’s emotions. When you experience empathy for someone, you are able to put yourself in the other person’s shoes and feel their pain, anguish, fear, etc. There is no barrier between the two of you, as you feel the pain “along with” that person. (See The Power of Empathy, a three-minute video that explains empathy in an extremely creative and humorous way.)

And, by the way, while Sympathy is sometimes confused with empathy, it is NOT the same. If you feel sympathy for someone, you feel sorry for that person’s suffering, but there is a detached quality to your feeling. While you can “feel” their pain from afar, that deeper connection is missing.

This summer I saw a new play, entitled OSLO, which was written by J.T. Rogers and produced at Lincoln Center Theater in New York City. Based upon true events, Rogers tells the behind-the-scenes story of the iconic moment in 1993 when Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasir Arafat came together at the White House to sign the peace treaty referred to as the Oslo Accords.

I cannot do justice to this outstanding production and its riveting interactions in this short blog, so please forgive me. The initiators of these discussions were two Norwegian diplomats, Terje Larsen and his wife, Mona Juul. The setting for most of the secret discussions, which took place over a period of 9 months, was a castle outside of Oslo, Norway.

The only hard rule that Larsen imposed on the participants was that, while they would discuss business matters in the conference room, they would not discuss any business outside the conference room during their mealtime and breaks in the adjacent living room.

Rogers, the playwright, focuses much of the action on what occurs in the living room, as slowly (very slowly, with many fits and starts and numerous angry outbursts) the participants come to know each other in a different way. They begin to talk about their families and other large and small aspects of their everyday lives. In fact, at one point during an intimate conversation, two of the participants (one PLO and the other Israeli) realize that they have given their daughters the exact same first name!

This process ultimately enables them to relate to each other with empathy, thus finding the commonalities in their humanity. And, of course, this “opening” ultimately enabled both sides to sign their historic treaty.

Some of us may have come by these qualities of empathy naturally, but for many others it is not second-nature. Scientists have found that our brains are hard-wired for empathy and that it can be taught and learned. That’s very good news for our relationships, our communities, and the planet.

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