"Peace cannot be kept by force; it can only be achieved by understanding." — Albert Einstein
“Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind.” — Bible (1 Peter 3:8)
Joe was having difficulties in his marriage. Joe’s friend, George, agreed to meet with him. George listened a few minutes and then proceeded to provide (what he thought was) great advice. Joe realized that George wasn’t really hearing him. George had pity and maybe a little sympathy for Joe’s concerns but it was clear he really wasn’t plugged in.
Joe then called Bill and asked if they could get together for coffee. Bill met with Joe and once again Joe shared his concerns. But this time was different. Bill sat there patiently listening, once in a while asking a few questions for clarification. After Joe finished, Bill sat there a minute or two in silence. Joe could tell he was deep in thought. Then he and Joe had a lengthy conversation about Joe’s situation and some of the options he might consider.
Here is an interesting definition of pity I found on the internet: “Pity is when you see (someone) as inferior and try to help them be better because you feel sorry for who they are and their lot in life.” Sympathy goes a little farther than pity. Sympathy demonstrates a true concern for difficulties another may be having; sincere sorrow may be felt for their misfortune.
In the above scenario, Joe really sensed that Bill was feeling, or trying to feel, what Joe felt. He was expressing really empathy for Joe. Empathy is stronger than sympathy or pity. It is the ability to put yourself in the place of another and understand someone else's feelings by identifying with them. With empathy, you put yourself in another's shoes, often feeling things more deeply than if you just felt sympathy.
One marriage expert says empathy is the key to a happy, successful marriage. The first step is being aware of our own emotions and then looking at them objectively and “stepping outside of ourselves” to focus the other person, their feelings and experiences. We do not get defensive or angry; we are listening with the sincere effort of putting ourselves in their place.
Empathy is not an easy emotion. We tend to be selfish by nature; we first want to make sure our needs are met, and when they are, we may become complacent and unwilling to get too involved with others. Empathy can be painful, because we are in a sense taking on someone else’s hurts. Following are some suggestions for increasing our empathy from Megan Bailey, social media specialist and content producer for Beliefnet:
• First of all, we must seek God’s help. It’s the only way to overcome our selfish nature. As much as we may try on our own to be empathetic towards others, our selfish nature says that we must first of all protect ourselves.
• Then we need to talk less and listen more. Stephen Covey’s well-known quote is very applicable here: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Listening is not easy. We would rather people listen to us then we to them. Our challenge is to listen for two things: the other person’s feelings and their needs.
• We can demonstrate we are truly listening by asking thoughtful questions. We may not be able to solve their problem but their vocalizing it often helps them clarify and perhaps see a path forward. Even more importantly, in marriage we are often a part of the problem. But until we understand we can’t work together for a solution.
• Finally, praying together always brings amazing results.We must learn to pray with our spouse in a very vulnerable fashion, coming together to seek God’s help either in the solution or just in listening with empathy to one another.
The ultimate example of empathy is what Jesus has done for us. As Ireneaus said long ago, “Jesus became what we are, in order that we might become what he is.”