Oxford Dictionaries defines empathy as “The ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” What a perfect description right? It sounds so simple, yet can seem so complicated; empathy may be a difficult concept to wrap your head around at first.
I first learned the art of empathy when I was about 17 years old. In my thirties now, I’ve had plenty of time to master these skills on each a personal, professional, and social level.
It’s always interesting to me how some people seem naturally graceful when it comes to empathy. Like they came right out of their mother’s womb and immediately aquired the amazing talent of relating to everyone around them.
And then there are the ’others’. The ones who would have to learn these skills to obtain them because it’s just not ultimately in their personality to think like that. When empathy is used by either party, the results can be the same. The ‘others’ however, will obviously have to try even harder to truly reap the benefits of this gift.
Lucky for me, I’m definitely the type who is naturally empathetic, so once I got the concept of how I could use it to my advantage, it was like a freight train took off and nothing was going to stop it. Lol. Empathy is awesome that way!
So the story goes something like this: I got my very first job when I was about 17 years old. It was a humble position; working as a bag-girl at our local Safeway (a grocery store), but it was great for a beginner in the work force like me.
The funny thing is, working there taught me more about empathy and true Customer Service than I ever thought possible. It opened doors for me I never expected. Let’s just say that Safeway’s 3 week Customer Service Training Program was extremely thorough and definitely world-class, so I got VERY lucky with that one.
It was in one of these training sessions where a supervisor drilled ideas… errr…I mean… taught me (over and over) the most important part of how to function as a truly empathetic person.
More specifically, he told me to, “Walk a mile in the shoes of another and only then will you understand how they really feel.” Now at first, my 17-year-old brain just thought he was being a cryptic bastard. But after a little contemplation, the light bulb finally flicked on and I just got it.
I realized that by asking myself how I would feel as a customer, a friend, or a lover in the same situation, I could better understand the perspectives from all sides of the conflict and therefore come to smarter and more likeable resolutions for my problems.
For example: as a bag girl, I would often have to deal with customers who were extremely rude. Some were so angry or upset that they would be screaming and causing a real scene. In these circumstances, there was a very clear procedure that Safeway taught and empathy played a big role in their success.
Their whole slogan was “the customer is always right” so it was my job to make sure the unsatisfied customer walked away happy no matter what. By putting myself in their shoes right there in the store, I quickly learned the truth about how easy it actually was to subdue a yelling or angry customer. It was like magic. Just by simply listening, understanding, and acknowledging their troubles, I was often able to diffuse a difficult customer without too much trouble. I’m telling you, it really does work like a charm.
So in a professional sense, anyone that has to deal with people (whether they are your peers or your customers) will benefit from using empathy. It can increase your interpersonal skills with co-workers. Not to mention that your customers will begin to feel like you really know them and pay attention, so in return they will provide the loyalty required to maintain a successful career. Yay!
Bringing empathy to the table in your social life can also allow you to relate better with your friends. Ultimately, if you are no longer able to understand where your friends are coming from, you will drift apart or cause a rift. It’s human nature.
Empathy is extremely important within the social circle because of this and can be used to make acquaintances feel more comfortable and connected with you than ever before. You might even find that they want you around so much, you’ll suddenly have a hard time choosing what to do each weekend.
Having the new empathetic you around is a real pleasure that they will definitely seek you out again and again.
Note: to really amp up the mystery and appeal here, I always try to exit social situations on a high note. This leaves your friends with the constant impression that they like having you around. This is because you haven’t stayed long enough to get on anybody’s nerves yet. Hehehe.
Anyways, empathy can also bring an intimate relationship to a gratifying new high. Chances are, you are probably more empathetic with your partner than you would be with just about anyone without even thinking about it. This is because you share more of life’s current circumstances with this person, so they are the ones who will ultimately feel the most for your situation. This causes a natural empathetic viewpoint.
When you are consciously using empathy with your partner, they feel more valued, listened to, understood, and loved. It really is a wonderful way to show appreciation for your loved one and helps to keep the lines of communication open and flowing.
Think about it; if your partner was intently listening to you and then showing recognition with their words and actions on a regular basis, you would probably be feeling pretty good about them too. It’s win, win every time. [wink]
So whether you’re dealing with a professional, social, or an intimate partner, I hope you can see just how truly valuable empathy can be. Because it does work so well, it has proven to me (many times) that putting yourself in someone else’s shoes is a valuable skill to practice.
I hope you can benefit from my lesson, too. Are you an empathetic person or are you someone who views empathy as weakness? Feel free to share your thoughts below. I’m always interested in what you have to say.
Oxford Dictionary Online