Empathy – the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

World on Fire

Looking at the world today, I feel like half the world is on fire because of a lack of understanding of the other. Whether that means that we can’t understand or we don’t even want to understand is a deeper question. Regardless, we have a bunch of people in the world talking past each other. There is fire in the streets. Massive protests where people throw bricks into buildings and overturn cars are occurring in city after city. Whether it’s Black Lives Matter, Blue Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street, or the Tea Party, large groups of people are out there marching because they are sending a signal to the world that they are not understood, and their needs are not being met.

The world needs to build bridges in this situation. We have people talking at cross purposes and we need to get them all on the same page. This does not mean forced agreement, but it does mean understanding. There may be people out there agitating for their own financial benefit, but many more are feeling truly forgotten in the world. How do we reach these people? How do we bring marginalized people into a community of which they have no part? The key to that is empathy.

Empathy vs. Sympathy

Empathy is not sympathy which can easily be confused. Sympathy is a feeling of concern over a persons plight. It’s pity. People who are feeling marginalized do not need your pity. They need to feel heard. They need to feel understood. When people are feeling pity they are belittling the people for whom they feel pity. Pity, whether we want it to or not, places the person who holds the pity above the other. Empathy makes it so the person understands that you can walk in their shoes. Empathy moves us to action.

So how do we gain empathy? And ultimately, how do we reach our children to truly build that empathy muscle in their lives? First the key is communication. I know this is an overused term but it is a vital tool in our ability to understand the other. But how do we communicate in a 21st century world? This brave new world should increase communication but it hasn’t. What’s worse is that one of the biggest tools of communication this century is the internet, yet it seems to increase factions in the world. It more often divides than it unites. Study after study have found that it increases confirmation bias, increases depression, and decreases social engagement. How is that possible? But I would ask you how often have you seen people talking to each other via text when they are ten feet away from each other? If 85 percent of communication is non-verbal, how much are you missing when you are staring at a screen? We need to change how we communicate.

Social Activity

So how do we change? How do we encourage our children to change? First, we engage in social activity with people and we encourage that with our children. Leading by example is important. So this means disconnecting from our devices for a few hours a day or more and going out and doing things with others. Go have a lunch with a friend. Engage in a physical activity on Meetup. For our children this means increasing play dates, attending churches, participating in after school activities, or having kids parties. To gain empathy it is essential that we encourage socialization in our children.


Second, we need to build listening skills in ourselves and our children. As parents, we should try having a conversation where we get through the whole conversation without expressing an opinion, unless called upon, and merely nodding and confirming that you hear the other person. As a guy I know that it’s so easy to want to fix things. There is a problem and we have a solution to the problem. Sometimes the solution is just to listen. Ask any husband. Sometimes their wives just want to be heard. Instead of fixing things let us face things as they are by learning from someone other than ourselves. As regard to teaching children, try to model this behavior for them. Let them talk us and do not try to interrupt them to find something out. Let them talk and say things to you without judgement. And repeat back to them what you heard from them. It’s a win win. You learn more about them than you could possibly imagine, and they learn from you how to listen to someone else.

Disagree with Love

Finally, show love to people you disagree with. This is the hardest thing but I think it is the most important part of empathy. It’s easy to be empathetic towards those we already agree with. We understand their feelings. But when we show love towards those we disagree with, we build the kind of bridges that this world desperately needs. How do we teach this to our children? Obviously leading by example is key. When someone is angry or upset with us, engage with them. Ask them why they are mad. If it’s your fault, apologize and do differently. If it’s a misunderstanding, listen to them fully. Repeat what you heard, try to explain that you understand what you said came out differently than it meant, and inform what you really meant. And the biggest thing is when there is a disagreement. Be respectful. It’s not easy. When we disagree we become defensive. Try not to be defensive. Just listen. Inform that you disagree. Explain what you believe if they will allow you. But be loving to the other person. Show them compassion anyway.

This is hard to teach our children because of our own impulses to want to protect them. When someone wrongs them we want to step in. We want to protect them from being hurt. And obviously if someone is bullying them we would all step in. But in as much as we can we should encourage them to deal with disagreements. This means confronting the people who think differently. It’s uncomfortable. We know that from our own experience. But if we want to encourage their growth and to know they will be strong, secure adults, then facing others who disagree with them is important. And always encourage them to be loving.

So how do we build bridges? How do we build empathy? Listen. Learn. Communicate. Be loving. Empathy will follow.

Building Bridges Through Empathy

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