Is empathy the key?

YES - Empathy is the key to solving many problems. First, let me explain a bit about what empathy is. Then we can get to the fun part of looking at an example in action.

So what is empathy?

Many people mistake empathy for sympathy. Empathy is not merely feeling pity or sorrow for someone else; it requires going beyond thinking of yourself in their situation. To practice empathy we must take what we know about a person so we can try to understand what they must feel and think about their situation from their perspective. As you might imagine, this can be a tricky thing to do. 

Empathy is about standing in someone else’s shoes, feeling with his or her heart, seeing with his or her eyes. Not only is empathy hard to outsource and automate, but it makes the world a better place.
— Daniel H. Pink

Here's an example. A three year old is throwing the world's most embarrassing tantrum in the middle of the grocery store, the parent is screaming and yelling at the child to stop and it is not helping the situation at all. Everyone is giving them that look, you know the one. You wonder why the child can't just behave, or why the parent doesn't try something else seeing this isn't working, or why everybody is just judging? 

If we try to see things from each person's perspective, we will gain some insight into how to manage the problem. Pretend for a moment that you are the parent (maybe you've been in this situation at some point, it happens to the  best of us!). Now, see things from your child's perspective - you've already gone to two other boring places today with your parent, you got woken up from a brief car nap, you are hungry and tired. All your three year old brain knows is you want that cupcake and you want it now!

As the parent, you get hangry (hungry + angry), but not like this. When you take the child's perspective you see alternative solutions - validate their feelings, buy a less sugary snack or grab one from your bag, leave and let them get that nap, or maybe just let them have the cupcake this time and make a plan for how to avoid or solve the problem next time.

You can also pretend that you are an onlooker. Try seeing things from the parent's perspective - you are exhausted from running around with a 3 year old all day and waking up early because your child does not understand sleeping in, skipped breakfast, grabbed a granola bar for lunch, feel frustrated and angry, and are worried about money so don't want to buy anything unnecessary. Let's not forget this parent is probably embarrassed too at this point. An onlooker who can empathize with this might see some solutions - validate the parent's experience and feelings, ask how you can help and offer potential solutions such as "could I buy a small snack for your child or coffee for you" or "let me help you get through the check-out line and out to your vehicle," or maybe offer a kind smile and "I've been there."

The opposite of anger is not calmness, its empathy.
— Mehmet Oz

Can I learn to be more empathic?

YES - A quick google search can give you many ideas for both adults and children. Research indicates that empathy is not a fixed trait, meaning that we can increase empathy in ourselves and others. To increase our empathy we have to genuinely be motivated to actually do it. It can be helpful to seek out activities or settings that are different than what is typical or comfortable for you. We can also increase empathy through experiencing the arts such as books, music, and movies - have you ever been able to put yourself in a character or singer's perspective? In real life, practice listening for understanding, instead of listening to plan your response. If you prefer to read, below you will find my top picks for a children's and adult's book for learning empathy. (Full disclosure - I get a very small commission from Amazon if you make a purchase through the links, but I would recommend these books even without that!) Tackle it on your own, with a partner, or with friends! Most therapists are also skilled at helping people increase their empathy if you are looking for more help. 

Book recommendations

The top book for adults I would recommend is Born for Love by Bruce Perry and Maia Szalavitz. Bruce Perry is an expert in trauma and I work a lot with trauma; taking a trauma-informed approach to empathy just makes good sense. It also gets positive reviews from most readers.  

The top book for children I would recommend is The Invisible Boy by Trudy Ludwig. While it does not advertise itself to be about empathy, it really is. The content is engaging for children and even though is says it is for 6+ I have read it to my almost-4 year old with no issues.

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