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What does it really mean to be “empathetic”​?

By | Shankar Thayumanavan | Helping lead with Clarity, Courage and Compassion, Author of “Making of a Level 5 Design Thinker”, ICF Certified Leadership Coach (PCC), Level 5 Design Thinking Coach

The word “empathy” as defined in the dictionary is “the ability to share someone else’s feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in that person’s situation”. This word has become quite overused in professional circles of late. Would like to explore the deeper significance of the “act of empathy” in this post.

In order to appreciate what “empathy” really is, we need to understand the psychological make up of us human beings – what we call as the “Me”. “Me” is a conditioning of the past. It is the sum total of our accumulated past experiences stored in memory as knowledge. The moment we identify ourselves with this “Me”, we create a sense of separation between ourselves and the people around us. We create an image of ourselves and an image of others. So the interaction happens between these images that we have created, than the people themselves. In essence we are not in a position to relate to the other person once we have created an image of them based on our past experiences. For eg. let us say someone insults or hurts us. The next time we meet them we have an image of them as “someone who has hurt us” and the image of ourselves as “someone who has been hurt”. So when we carry these images of the past, are we really able to relate to the other person?

These images that we carry cause the sense of separation between ourselves and the people around us. They are the source of all conflict and one’s inability to “empathize” with the other person. We fail to truly understand the other person, rather see them through the lens of our conclusions, prejudices and biases about them. That way we simply fail to listen to the other person. How can there be “empathy” when we cannot “listen” to the other person?

How to end this sense of separation that we ourselves have created? Is this even possible? Of course it is provided we develop the right perception. 

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