Be Empathetic

On Being a Modern Gentleman:

Guideline 5: Be Empathetic

Everyone is the protagonist of their own story. And as the protagonist, the actions of others are always weighed against our own interests and emotions. The most beneficent of us are still guilty of it. It can’t be helped, unless a conscious effort is made to think otherwise.

Consider this: You smile at a coworker in the hallway and greet them, asking about their day, and they respond huffily or ignore you. Suddenly, they’re an antagonist. Why did they do this to me? What did I do to them to make them respond in this manner? The event is all about you. Few of us would stop to consider what the other individual may be feeling or thinking.

Many of us ignore others, are irritable, or are deserving of rebuke, but we have excuses. We tell ourselves that our actions are justified because of our flat tire, accumulating bills, the passing of a friend. We aren’t a bad person, just overwhelmed. Here’s the rub, in their story, we aren’t the lead. They ignored us because their mother-in-law just called to say she was divorcing her husband of 32 years, and they simply couldn’t bear speaking to someone at the moment. They were huffy because after years of service, they were let go to open up funds for a new espresso machine in the lounge. They have excuses as well. Be empathetic and considerate with others.

In modern parlance, empathy is often confused with sympathy, but the two are quite different. Sympathy is nothing more than acknowledgement: “I recognize that you are mad.” Empathy requires that you feel with the person, and, combined with theory of mind, enables you to understand the emotions and perspectives of other. Psychologist M. Hoffman, in Empathy and Moral Development, argues that true, or affective empathy, “is the involvement of psychological processes that make a person have feelings that are more congruent with another’s situation than with his own situation.”

I can’t teach you empathy, though you can develop or strengthen it. I charge you with this: put yourself in another’s shoes. Observe others. Surround yourself with humanity, even the gritty, pained, and realistic. Before you act, think about the character you’re going to be in their story.

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