Empathy first, empathy always.

An amusing exchange happened in one of my lessons the other day and it made me think about communication, sincerity, and how to go about creating and maintaining relationships with others.

You see, I had spent most of the lesson reviewing my student’s external correspondences and was somewhat horrified that the correspondences, while well-crafted and polite, were mostly utilitarian and mechanical. It is one thing to write that you are requesting a favour but quite another to communicate your gratitude in having that person take the time to consider your request. After all, no one owed them anything. Any response was time spent giving them feedback and an opportunity for reflection, and people should be thanked for their time! So I tried guiding my students to understand that sincerity and gratitude were essential in their correspondences especially if they were asking for a favour. To my surprise, when I later dismissed them early so that they wouldn’t be late for their next lesson, some students thanked me for my kind understanding. In those terms. Yes, it was probably some cheekiness on their part and we laughed it off, but that episode made me wonder about how to encourage sincerity. After all, it’s not something you can simply tell someone to do and false sincerity is the surest way to be patronizing.

In the multiple roles I play, as a mediator, event planner, community builder, sports team manager, I’ve often find myself having to work with others. Those experiences provided wonderful springboards for this reflection.

What has gone right in those experiences and what went wrong?

When was I sincere and when did I feel that someone was being sincere towards me?

How did I react?

I realised that the sincere exchanges that I was enriched by left an impact because I felt like someone actually made the effort to think about me as a person. Not as a means to his end and not as a favour. And the ones that I know left an impact on people were able to do so because I thought about things from the other person’s perspective.

The key to sincerity is empathy. Empathy first, empathy always.

Yes, we may never truly know what it’s like to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, and it’s another brand of condescension to assume that we do know. However, the empathy I refer to is an attitude and a mindset. To want to think from the other person’s perspective instead of ours. To remove ourselves from the center of the universe and think about others instead.

“Self-absorption in all its forms kills empathy, let alone compassion. When we focus on ourselves, our world contracts as our problems and preoccupations loom large. But when we focus on others, our world expands. Our own problems drift to the periphery of the mind and so seem smaller, and we increase our capacity for connection – or compassionate action.”
Daniel Goleman, Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships

It’s a matter of thinking about how we may have inconvenienced others, about what they could be preoccupied with, about what they may be happy or upset about at that point in time… or even to think about how much a quick note of thanks could brighten their day and taking a few minutes to convey that thanks. Why not expend a little more effort to make someone’s day a bit better? (Or at least not make it worse?)

“Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.”
Leo Buscaglia

A recent New York Times article recently discussed how empathy is actually a matter of choice, and I encourage everyone to read it!

So, reflection completed, I went back to class and discussed empathy instead of sincerity with my students. The heart and effort that went into subsequent correspondences were palpable. I sure do hope that their recipients felt the same way.

Empathy, like all other virtues, isn’t an end point that we can arrive at. It is too easy to slip into complacence. But it certainly is something we can continually hone and work towards 🙂


Image source: Path by Miguel Virkkunen Carvalho