We have seen some of the basics of empathy in my earlier blog https://www.shrikantmambike.com/emotional-intelligence-empathy-part-1/ . We are all born good people and we do have some empathy in us naturally. Only that we sometimes, lose it (as we have seen in the last blog) to anger, self-consumed, egocentric, prejudiced and stereotyped attitudes. In this blog, we will see how we can take our empathy to higher levels. Having said so, improving one’s empathy is a continuous process and cannot happen overnight. I have been working on it for quite some time. However, this is a work in progress (WIP) for all of us until the end of our lives, if we want to achieve real happiness, contentment, and life fulfillment.
In this blog post, we will see some of the methods that can be used to enhance our capacity to empathize with others. But before that, I would like you all to revisit the History of Oskar Schindler, based on which Steven Spielberg made the film, Schindler’s List. Schindler himself was a paid-up Nazi at the beginning of World War II. He set up a factory for enamelware in Krakow, which produced war ammunition for German soldiers. Schindler would bribe them, supply girls, serve them with the best alcohol to get higher value contracts. He would use Jew workers in his factory and exploited them. Nobody could have predicted in 1940 that this man would risk his life to save Jewish factory workers from getting executed. What can explain his transformation?
One incident changed the way Schindler started looking at people. It so happened that in 1942, he saw loads of people being herded from their homes to the death camps, and on the way some of them would be mauled by the dogs, some shot on point-blank range. He saw a little girl wandering on the streets and she was watching a Nazi soldier stamp his foot on a young boy’s head and shoot him inside his neck from behind. The little girl represented humanity of the Jewish population, which really shook Schindler from inside out. And what happened afterward, was- as they call it, yes real History. He saved 1100 Jews and helped them escape across the border to Czechoslovakia, where he was building his new ammunition factory. He even gave instructions to make his ammunition defective so that Germany cannot use them against the Jews, incurring high losses.
Why did he sacrifice his fortune to save those in the list? When asked he replied ‘I knew the people who worked for me. When you know people, you have to behave towards them like human beings.’
The key here is knowing people. The act of empathizing begins with looking into the eye of the other person. If you can’t look into the eye of the other person, you don’t have the courage to face them, you are guilty of being selfish and powerless. Schindler also reminds us that our capacity to empathize is not fixed and can change and develop over the period of time.
With this inspiring empathy story of Schindler, lets now understand how we can develop our empathy in daily life.
- Gratitude for people whom we cannot see: As you get up in the morning, remember all those people who work hard and our lives actually depend on them. Recall all those people starting from the farmer, who toils day in and out so that we can have our food, each person and mechanism through which the food is brought to our plate, the society, doctors who heal us, engineers who build roads, bridges, and apartments, people who stitch clothes for us, and all those people who touch our lives directly or indirectly. Thank them for all they do for you. We need to keep in our minds that we enjoy their products, so we have a responsibility towards them especially if they are working in poor conditions. If we can engage ourselves in this practice, we can dig deep into a better understanding of the people around us. This practice of being grateful, will keep us grounded and make us understand how we are dependant on the other people, we have never met or seen. (Incidentally, learned the gratitude meditation in one of the workshops I attended on Emotional Mastery from ‘Beyond you’). While I am WIP on EI, this I found was taking me faster on the path of empathy.
- Being Sensitive: If one has to develop their empathy more, you may start it with animals or have some pets at home, if you are fond of them. While I am not fond of pets, I know they are so loving (especially dogs) and expect nothing from us. What to eat and what not to, is an individual choice and I am nobody to advise on the subject. However, would like to narrate my experience of how I developed some more empathy when I was in my thirties.
I became vegetarian about 20 years back as I remembered seeing something which was quite disturbing and changed the way I look at animals. If we can understand an animal, by placing oneself in their shoes, there is a good possibility that we will have empathy for fellow human beings.
The key here is to develop the habit of understanding and where the other person is coming from. Once you are continuously in that mode, you cannot be a spectator/bystander and ignore- if you see a beggar shivering in the cold night, or once you get to know your maid is sick or worker in your factory is finding it difficult to pay school fees of his only son. 3. Imagining Kindness and Love: If you happen to see a big, wealthy businessman at say, one of the social/business gatherings, who is throwing around his weight and showing off his money muscle, your first reaction could be, dislike for him. Then, just do an exercise in your mind. Imagine him being different in human guise, playing with is 10 years old daughter or helping his 80-year-old mother to lie down on the bed and comforting her to sleep. Doing this might subtly change the way you speak to him. You may find him a person that you have imagined. External appearances can be deceptive.
This exercise can help us to get over our habits of judging and labeling people and jumping to conclusions. This also gives us an opportunity to connect with more people and have better conversations with them.
When I started my career in sales about 28 years back, initially I had to make a lot of cold calls and most companies would shoo us away. I never liked the sales job in the beginning. So, these days when a salesman visits our house, I don’t drive him away or bang the front door, just politely say NO, if I don’t have to buy anything from him. I offer him a glass of water. Because I have gone through this ordeal myself, I can immediately connect with the salesmen.
The same is true with telesales people who call us for say credit cards, personal loans, or car loans or sell credit cards at shopping malls. Earlier I would just disconnect the line or if I am in a bad mood myself would even resort to verbal abuse. Now I politely say ‘No’. I have realized that these people are just doing their jobs. In fact, I think why are they wasting their time and energy by doing such petty jobs and wish I could be instrumental in getting them a good job someday.
Another method of imagining towards getting aligned with people and to what they are going through is to ask some pertinent questions to self before we make assumptions about them, to boost our self-awareness and enable us to identify prejudices that might be lurking in our minds. Some of these questions can be:
- Do people make some assumptions about you? How correct are these? If you think that they are totally wrong, do you have the right to make assumptions about others?
- Think of three instances when you were mistaken in your assumptions and judgments about others. What were the consequences of your mistakes and why did it matter?
- How often do you make assumptions and judgments and about which kinds of people?
We need to get into the habit of asking the “C” question and try to catch ourselves making too many judgments and assumptions about some people around us say- the peon of your office (assumption could be- poor guy chewing tobacco- won’t do this filing work properly. Realty- He is very good and prompt at his job, or a young team member who looks more flashy, maverick kind of character is, in reality, a very calm and easy-going guy or a young lady in the office who has many tattoos on her body has, honesty and time- management as her work values.
With better self-awareness, you may be prompted to have a dialogue with say- the person who is very quiet in the official meetings and discover their real views and reason for their silence. We can be on the fast track of empathy if we can prove ourselves wrong in this regard.
The key to empathy is to treat others how they, rather than you would like to be treated.
Coming up next: Empathy Part 3 Stay tuned….