In these times of difficult political discourse, with friends “un-friending” each other on Facebook, people are taking the chance to say nasty things in public to people they barely know, and discussions are often personal and mean.
Perhaps it’s time to revisit the lost art of empathy.
One interesting study showed that empathy could in fact be learned, and that you can be empathetic to someone you barely know. The study showed that in fact it took only a few positive experiences to become empathetic. This could be good news for people who are sure they’ve become jaded and negative.
If everyone could practice a bit of empathy each day, imagine the possibilities for building bridges and finding solutions? But while empathy is at least as old as the Golden Rule, people don’t always put it into practice. Life gets busy and rushed. There is so much stress, and the person driving in front of you who won’t go faster is an impediment to getting to your destination, isn’t he? We often see others as the problem—the root of our troubles—instead of as an individual person who is probably dealing with as many difficulties in that given moment as we are.
There are many reasons to practice empathy and kindness. (This article does a nice job of outlining the benefits.) Let’s consider some of the ways you can move away from negative frustration toward more positive actions and interactions:
- Recognize that your self-talk can be the fuel on a raging negative fire.Consider how you react to the news. Do you begin to think about “those people” who are wealthier, or poorer, or uneducated, or overeducated? Whatever your personal concern may be, do you ruminate over the people “out there” who can or want to hurt you in some way? Notice your thoughts—and then choose to stop. That’s right: You can actually choose to stop a negative onslaught of thoughts, and turn it around. The first step is to catch yourself doing it.
- Have a plan for positive action.Is there a poem or song that makes you happy? Can you list three things about your life that you savor? Are there people in your world that you care about, whom you could call and (positively) talk with about something? Have a positive preparedness plan to put in action.
- Learn to be objective.Every new source has its own slant: You could read four articles about the same subject and come away with four different interpretations. Instead of getting outraged or upset, consider that you might not be getting all of the information, and that there are probably things you don’t know. Be well-read, but don’t allow what you read to fuel your negativity.
- Walk away from negative thoughts and negative people.You can catch your own negative thoughts and turn your attention elsewhere, but what if you are surrounded by negative people who want to draw you back in to the scrum? Consider that it is sometimes best to physically remove yourself from the situation. Just leave the room. Go for a walk. Exercise by yourself. Sometimes separation is the key to becoming more objective and calmer in the face of upset.
- Do something nice for someone, even if you think they don’t deserve it.The ultimate empathetic move is to be nice even when someone isn’t being nice to you. Compliment them. Give your attention to them. Send them a card noting something you truly like about them. Everyone is in pain of one sort or another, and if you can see through the hard wall to the pain underneath and respond to the person there, you will unlock the key to being kind and empathetic.