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Empathy – an act, skill or practice?

By | Bhavana Issar | Founder & CEO: Caregiver Saathi

As I sat down to write this article, I decided to search for an image that would make an immediate connection for the idea of “empathy”. I tried to remember what I knew about empathy. The synapses of my brain connected and lit up with a story I had heard at a conference. A renowned consultant-teacher among many other things, @Anil Sachdev started his presentation at a conference by saying “let me tell you a story. For this story I will need a volunteer. Someone who is a male and about my height. Can one of you come up to the stage?” One enthusiastic participant walked up and he went on to say “what is empathy?”. The volunteer smiled and replied “when I can feel what you feel”. It was obvious. This was a conference of behavioural scientists who knew these terms well enough. The speaker said “brilliant! how can you feel what I feel? You and I are both men and approximately same height. Can you feel what I feel in my shoes?”

The volunteer and the audience were visibly trying to gauge what might come up next. It seemed so obvious. Right?


Man getting out of flat shoes and wearing a woman's high heeled shoes

So I typed “empathy shoes” in the search bar and voila the search engine came up with innumerable pictures and articles on empathy, walking in someone’s shoes etc. etc.

So is empathy that? Perhaps…. and partly.

Going back to the story of the speaker. The speaker went on to say “maybe it is better if we really get into each others’ shoes. After all, the essence of empathy is to be able to walk a mile in another’s shoes. And since you and I wear similar kind of shoes, of almost identical size, it should be easy-peasy!”

No alt text provided for this image

Everyone, the volunteer and the audience nodded, although unconvincingly. “There must be something else” I could hear everyone thinking. The speaker smiled and went on to say “even when the shoes are apparently similar, empathy is a conscious act and practice. The point is not whether or not you can get into the other’s shoes or walk in them. The key is, that you have to step out of your shoes….. and only then can you get into another’s shoes”

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