The challenge of empathy is that it requires us to overcome our own convenient mental shortcuts.
“He’s just disorganized.”
“She is so rigid.”
“They are biased.”
“They don’t care about disadvantaged people.”
These shortcuts are the opposite of empathy, which is defined as “vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another.” Surely someone else doesn’t feel they are disorganized, rigid, biased, or uncaring.
Our first step towards finding empathy is to see our mental shortcuts for what they are: they save us the trouble of seeing the world from someone else’s perspective, helping us box in and simplify another complex human being.
Our next step is to work to see and hear the story they tell themselves about themselves.
This story is, of course, a positive one.
“I am flexible, nimble and creative.”
“I am structured and diligent.”
“I’ve been around the block, and I’m not naïve.”
“I value hard work above all.”
What are the truly good, worthwhile things they are in favor of? What are the values they cherish?
Our empathy breakthroughs ultimately come when we understand the values someone else is fighting for.
We are all protagonists in our own story.