When I first heard this, I thought there was no way it was true. Surely, someone who’s been through the same situation as another person would have more empathy right? They know where that person is coming from. They can identify with the feelings and burdens that situation entails, right? Apparently not. According to NPR’s social science correspondent, Shankar Vedantam, a person who has been through the same predicament you have is going to show less empathy because he or she deals with that same problem on a daily basis. It’s actually better to reach out to someone who hasn’t experienced your hardship if you want to receive empathy.
So then I started thinking, what can I do to be empathetic across the board, no matter if I’ve experienced what someone is going through or not? Here’s what I came up with:
Take a step back
In order to show empathy, I have to take a step back from my own experience. I can do this by remembering that I am in a different place now, but the person in front of me is suffering. I can remember what that suffering felt like, and I can extend support to that person.
One of the best ways to show empathy is to listen better. Sometimes, a person just needs a friend to listen. If I’m caught up in memories of my own experiences, then I’m not listening as intently as I could be. Instead, I can give my full focus to the person in front of me. I can listen intently to their story. I can watch their facial expressions and interpret their body language to better understand how they are affected by their situation.
These are just a couple of ways we can be more empathetic toward our friends, family and peers. What can you add to this list?