Lessons from Empathy

The preponderance of etiquette handbooks and checklists give the impression that social grace is about memorizing rules. But this method is destined to fail. You’ll find yourself on a date and forget the “don’t interrupt others” rule because you’re too focused on the “chew with your mouth closed” rule. It’s much more productive to look at a situation from the bottom up. The “rules” of social interaction are complicated, but a serious effort to put yourself in the place of others will go a long way toward demystifying many of these seemingly unmotivated tenets. They even came up with a word for it; it’s called empathy.

But what exactly does it mean to empathize with someone?

It’s a tricky term. I’ve heard empathy defined as knowing other people’s fears and desires as our own (also as “when you feel other people’s pain in your body” courtesy of Yahoo Answers). But since this isn’t always possible, it’s best to start with ourselves. We know things about others because they are true about us.

We like to feel included, so it’s safe to assume that others do as well. This is easily applicable. When talking with a group, ideally everyone is drawn into the discussion, and people take turns sharing thoughts. But sometimes half of the group won’t have much to say or won’t be interested. Should you let the participants degenerate into a group of talkers and a group of (bored) spectators? No. You should include the spectators. The magical thing is that this can be done without changing the topic. All you have to do is take turns looking at everyone in the group. Even if the content of what you are saying is directed at just one other person, try to make eye contact with everyone else too.

Similarly, we don’t like being humiliated, so recognize that other people probably don’t either. This is straightforward. When you find yourself in a confrontational mood and feel the need to dish out some criticism, wait until you can do so in private. No matter how receptive your target is, he will not appreciate a public scolding.

As plain as this piece of advice is, it is often lost on us, as evidenced by the number of people who write into advice columns complaining that they don’t get invited to enough parties. The response is generally to “throw parties and invite your friends.” This doesn’t guarantee that your friends will start inviting you, but it’s a start.

With empathy comes clarity. It becomes obvious that you shouldn’t put down your friend in front of his boss or drop a conversation because someone more interesting came along. And the best thing is that empathy, unlike chutzpah or entitlement, qualities required in varying doses in social interaction, is unequivocally good. This is one of those refreshing situations where being decent translates into being successful.

-Robert