Have you known someone who seems to know just what you're feeling, just by looking at you? Some people may be naturally tuned to another's emotions, but that doesn't mean the rest of us can't develop our emotional radar. Empathy is a skill, one we can cultivate to become more compassionate in our relationships. Sympathy is simply feeling sorry for someone, or compassionate for them. But empathy is a deeper connection, entering into another's emotional burden, naming it out loud. Dictionary.com describes empathy as the “vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.” Empathy chooses to experience the emotions of another. Here are a few ways to develop empathy.
In our always rushing to get somewhere culture, we often rush past opportunities to engage with one another. Scripture tells us that when we bear one another’s burdens that we fulfill the law of Christ (Galatians 6:2). Busyness has become an illness which infects us and robs us of emotional intimacy. We can’t bear each other’s burdens if we never slow down to listen to another's heart, noticing and naming what they're feeling.
Paying attention to how someone is feeling is an important first step in developing emotional awareness. In small talk, we engage only superficially with one another, never sharing our true emotions. The goal is to connect more deeply, paying attention to the emotions that our brothers and sisters are experiencing. It may be more comfortable to talk about the weather than to engage another's emotional struggles, but we can’t bear the burden if we don’t know what they are feeling.
When listening to someone's story, choose to wonder how they feel about the events they describe. Worry less about the details and more about the impact. A curious heart listens to gain understanding. It asks, “I wonder how they are feeling about this? Are they happy, sad, or mad?” or “How might these events feel from their point of view?” Pause from responding with questions, and wonder what this means for the other person. The world is not black and white, and people experience things differently. Choose to wonder about the emotions of the people around you.
As you wonder about what another is feeling, give it a label. Name it. Go ahead and say "That made you angry" or "That sounds threatening." Feel free to ask "Was that disappointing?" or "Did that encourage you?" Wonder what the other is feeling and give it a voice. Having someone bear witness to our feelings and emotions is powerful and bonding. You give a gift by articulating another's experience. Chances are, if you miss the mark with your label, they will help you. They might respond, "I wasn't angry so much as disappointed," or "it was really great news, but then I worried about what might come next." The important thing is to see the impact events are having on another's heart.
Time spent wondering and reflecting with people on a path different from our own can help us see beyond our own experience. Spending time with the elderly or small children, helping out at a food pantry, or participating in a mission trip are just a few ways to widen our vision. Seeing life through another's eyes widens our understanding of the world. Wondering with others helps you to see other ways of thinking and feeling.
When you demonstrate empathy for someone else's pain, you model caring about another's experience. Parents who reflect the joys and sorrows of their kids set an example of caring for the next generation. Even if we did not have good examples in our life, we can choose to give others the gift of listening to the concerns that are weighing on them.
Empathy is a skill that we can learn and develop. We can learn to witness life's impact on another. God created us for living in community--he was the first to say that it was not good for man to be alone. Jesus prayed in John 17 that we would be one as he is one with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Live out that oneness by compassionate wondering for one another. Then we will be bearing one another’s burdens and so fulfilling the law of Christ!