Saturday, July 14, 2012

A simpleton's guide to empathy

Not sympathy. That is not a good word to use.

Sympathy is when you pity someone. You feel sorry for them. You want them to feel better, to be better. Depending on how much you care, you give them a portion of your attention and emotion. The world is not short of sympathizers. But do you do something about it? Does it help them? Do they really need it?

What the world needs is empathy and we are embarrassingly low on empathizers. A normal individual does not want you to feel sorry for him. He does not want your pity. 'You are not better than me', he argues. What use is your sympathy to the rape victim you read about in the papers? Or the relatives of the dead from the newest earthquake in Indonesia? Or your friend who lost his job? Sympathy only serves to help us connect to our emotional side. It helps us feel better about ourselves because we 'care'.  It helps us stay in denial. It serves us more than anyone else.

Of course there are some unfortunate souls that do seek sympathy. Like a drug addict crawling on the streets. 'It hurts so bad. The world has an agenda against me. I have been wronged by everyone at every level', they cry to you. They want your attention. Do they feel better if you offer a solution? Does your counsel get used to solve the problem and avoid it the next time around? They don't have any self-respect. Chances are they don't even want to think about how to deal with it. It is not about healing the hurt. It is not about losing the pain. It is about the attention that your sympathy gives them. They will live off it as long as you give it and if you refuse, they will simply find it elsewhere. It is a drug; you can get it from any dealer.

Empathy requires more effort. You actually need to think about what the person is going through. Put yourself in their shoes. Think like them. What is it that they really are feeling? What is it that they really need? Do they deserve it? Can you solve the problem?

Most of the world complains about not being understood and they are right. We are short on empathy. When you listen to someone, you are not really understanding their situation. You have already jumped to what would be the most soul-satisfying thing for you to do. I used to volunteer for an organization called Aid India in college. When a tsunami hit Tamil Nadu in late 2004, an immediate operation started - to collect, pack and send sackloads of used clothes to some of the relief sites in southern Tamil Nadu. We spent many hours on it. A week later we received a letter from one camp saying this:

 'We thank you for your concern. However, we are independent and hard-working people. It is true that we have lost everything we own in the floods but we have not lost our self-respect. Please do not take that away from us with your alms.'

They needed our care and support to regain their self-sufficiency and no amount of used clothes provided was going to give them that. It was a slap in the face and I responded with guilt and humility. More growing up and objective thought followed. I am not a fan of Vivek Oberoi but I appreciate his move in response to the calamity. He gathered a bunch of friends and flew over to the site with some supplies to start a mess there. The mess was quickly set up and within a day, he was able to hand over the mess with some food supplies to the relief victims. That may not have solved all their problems but it was an empathetic move that they needed. 

Global Giving is an organization that can actually do the empathy part for you, if that is not your thing. My brother-in-law got me introduced to this one some years ago. One of their projects is the micro-loans for rural women in Africa (link on causes page), where your money provided is a $50 loan to a rural woman in Africa so she may start and run an independent small business. It is an interest and collateral-free loan, not a donation. Your effort and money spent is not much but it is better than handing out money to beggars on the street.

Empathy is not about help and charity though. It needs to be there in everything that you do. Are you firing your employee? Are you bargaining on price? Are you demanding what you need? Do it with empathy. It is about getting out of your comfortable vantage point and thinking in the place of the one you are dealing with. Like an equal. It has to exist in every move you make that involves people. What would you want if you were in his place? How would you like to be treated? Empathy may involve doing what they don't ask you to do and sometimes it involves not doing what they ask you to do. People want respect. They want to know that they matter to someone. They want to be reminded that they are one of us too. Telling them that they will be fine may sometimes just not cut it, you will have to demonstrate it. You have keep thinking and working to keep yourself empathetic.

Based on my personal lessons, here is how:

1. Don't just tell them that they will be fine and ok later. Never dismiss their issues, even if it may really not be that big in your eyes. Their problem could be that they are oversizing what they think is bothering them. Help them understand that. Treat it as important; you may disagree but it is important to them.

2. Put yourself in their place. It is the only way to empathize. Think of what you would need if you were in their place; how you would wish to be treated. Think of how you would view the world if you were in their place. It is not the easiest thing to do but practice long enough and it will become second nature.

3. Hug. Be warm. It is first aid. A hug may not solve things but it can break the dam. Give a person a hug, ask questions later. It can help people feel more secure and open them up to further matters. Show raw affection. They are somebody's son or daughter. Treat them like they are somebody's joy.

4. Be humble about it. You are not doing a favor to anyone. Back off and work on yourself if you think you are better than them. They may be in a bad situation now but in time the opposite situation may exist. You empathize because it the decent human thing to do. It is what you would want done to yourself.

5. Understand. You may not agree but you have to hear them out and understand what really is running in their mind. Hear them out, listen well and keep the strength and stability to make your own decisions after. With empathy.

6. It is not about you. You have to take care of yourself but empathy does not involve a showcase of your inner celebrity social activist. Accept that things cannot be about you all the time.


On a side note, I've been listening to this song all day. Pammi sent it me earlier this week. I think it is more gambheera nattai than chala nattai.

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