You can change the world and it begins with ABC.

red and white ceramic bowl with silver spoon

Empathy is officially defined as the ability to recognize, understand, and share the thoughts and feelings of others. However, the best definition I have ever heard comes from Gwen Yi Wong at who says, “Empathy is the capacity to see parts of yourself in others.”

We all use and experience empathy in different measures. Think about the last fictional book you read or the last movie or TV show you watched. I am sure there was a character you affiliated with. You felt sad when they were sad or happy when they were happy. Think of those scary movies where the hero gets into trouble and you fear with them at every turn. This is empathy and we use it every day. Think about how you feel when one of your children gets upset by something. You feel upset too. Think about that co-worker who gets overlooked for a promotion they really deserve. Their disappointment becomes yours.

It’s all empathy, and it’s really important for us humans. It helps us respond to others appropriately in different situations. It also gives us an ability to discern the impact we might be having on others. For instance, when we encounter someone having a bad day and we smile to try and make it better, empathy helps us to discern whether it is helping or just making matters worse. If we see that it isn’t helping, our empathetic ability helps us alter course and take a different tack.

While empathy is critical to our human ability to connect and understand each other, experts tell us it is dangerously in decline. While there are many potential contributors to this decline, one is definitely the rise in technology that has driven a rise in narcissism where people go to extremes to get into the public eye whether it’s posting selfies on social media or being the over-the-top life-of-the-party in virtually every social situation. Shamelessly sending “look at me” messages has become an almost expected occurrence. As an additional side effect, genuine live connection has declined in favor of virtual connection. This has led to unfiltered, and in many cases, unfeeling communication. When people are distanced and feel protected in the cocoon of the electronic ether, all civil conventions tend to get thrown to the wind. Long story short, our ability to feel with others is being short circuited and subsequently lost due to over focus on self and lack of practice with real living beings.

So, what can we do to rectify this? How can we get better?

Here is a simple model I came across that provides some guidance on how to practice empathy. The model is called the ABCs of empathy and is an attempt to simplify something that, like so many things, has been made overly thorny and complex. For whatever reason, we humans tend to like to find complications in things that are really pretty straightforward. Since empathy is a basic part of our human wiring, it would seem it shouldn’t be, and in fact isn’t, that difficult to manage.

The ABC model, as you might suspect, is made up of three parts and it goes like this.

  • A is for Acknowledge People’s Humanness. The person you are interacting with is a person with flaws, feelings, goals, and ideas just like you. Always be cognizant of the fact that no matter how they are acting, that is not the sum of who they are. We all have icebergs under the surface containing problems, fears, regrets, and the list goes on. As the old saying goes, “be kind for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.”
  • B is for Be Aware of Emotions. True empathy requires looking, listening, and tuning in to the emotional “frequency” of the other person as well as yourself. Ensure that your emotions are in check and then try to understand the emotions of the other person without judgement.
  • C is for Choose a Helpful Response. Empathy should lead to a level of compassion and compassion is about action that should be helpful in some way. However, being truly helpful is more than lending a hand, it needs to demonstrate thoughtfulness that begins with patience, civility, curiosity, and clear communication. Thus, if your helpfulness must be some version of tough love, it can still be applied tactfully instead of bluntly.

So, if you are tired of our disconnected, seemingly love-starved world, get to work on your empathetic abilities. As we all heard in our primary schools, “practice your ABCs.”

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