Why empathy is the key to bridging the gap between the labels that divide us
By Jumol Royes
You’re either male or female. Black or white. Christian or Muslim. Gay or straight. Liberal or conservative. There’s a steady drumbeat to put on a label, even when those labels only serve to separate us from each other. We’re constantly being told that our only choice is either/or, leaving precious little room for a second option: and. A simple and often-overlooked conjunction, and is where we find connection, common ground and, ultimately, empathy.
Oxford Dictionaries defines empathy as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. In today’s world, it’s easy to see the damage caused by lack of empathy and the rush to label—a fractious political climate, an uptick in hate crimes, the prevalence of online bullying. These are all issues that could be resolved if we took the time to truly understand another person’s point of view and see things from a different perspective, rather than putting people in a box, labelling them and then retreating to our respective corners.
There are some great examples all around us of how to lose the labels and embrace empathy.
In his powerful video titled I Am NOT Black, You Are NOT White, spoken word artist Prince Ea challenges us to ask ourselves the question, “Who would you be if the world never gave you a label?” Watch the video here: https://princeea.com/2016/07/07/i-am-not-black-you-are-not-white/.
Actor Nico Tortorella, star of the TV show Younger and a self- proclaimed lover of love who has been very open about his own sexual fluidity, invites us to see beyond the labels and to have real conversations about love, relationships and self-love in his podcast, The Love Bomb. Listen to it here: bit.ly/niconiconico.
I’ve recently come to understand that I’m an empath, which basically means that I have the ability to feel other people’s emotions. While we don’t all start out on equal footing when it comes to our capacity for empathy, research has shown that it’s a habit we can develop. According to Roman Krznaric, a social philosopher, author, empathy advisor and founding faculty member of The School of Life in London, England, there are six habits of highly empathic people (HEPs) that we can all incorporate into our everyday lives.
1. Cultivate curiosity about strangers
They say curiosity killed the cat, but it’s through curiosity that we encounter people whose lives and realities are different from our own. Try sparking a conversation with someone outside your usual social circle, and see what happens.
2. Challenge prejudices and discover commonalities
Each of us has preconceived notions about other people that prevent us from seeing them for who they really are. If we’re willing to look past the stereotypes and the labels, we’ll discover that we all have much more in common than we realize.
3. Try another person’s life
Sure, it’s easy to play it safe and stay in our own little bubble. Yet there’s so much to gain from walking a mile in someone else’s shoes. To fully appreciate another person’s experience, it helps to understand where they’ve been.
4. Listen hard—and open up
Listening and sharing are the two pillars of any good conversation. Listening requires paying attention not only to what is being said, but also to what the other person is feeling. Sharing is about opening up and being vulnerable.
5. Inspire mass action and social change
Change shouldn’t just stop with us. We need to come together in order to effect positive change in the world we live in. Instead of using social media to gripe and vent, try using it to join forces with people working for good in your community.
6. Develop an ambitious imagination
It’s vital that we connect with people who are suffering and in need. However, it’s just as important to try and find common ground with people we disagree with. Creating bonds of understanding with our opponents breeds tolerance, and that’s something the world could use a lot more of.
I see you. I hear you. I feel you. That’s empathy. Former US President Barack Obama said it best in his farewell address: “If you’re tired of arguing with strangers on the Internet, try talking with one of them in real life.”
JUMOL ROYES is a Toronto-based PR and communications strategist with a keen interest in personal development and transformation. Follow him on Twitter at @Jumol.