“Empathy- the best virtue”- 9 July 201.

Among all the virtues that humans possess, the best one and the most needed one is –empathy.

‘She is very understanding. She never misunderstands. She interprets what I say in the right perspective. She never takes things in the wrong way. I can trust any thought with her for she will never misconstrue the meaning. She has an uncanny knack of inferring the right meaning and intent of what I am trying to say.’ What these sentences convey to us is the quality of perceiving and interpreting the true intent and meaning of the conversation that you have with another person. Most of us have experienced the fact that ‘whatever I will say will be misconstrued.’ Most of us leave conversations abruptly in the middle when we feel that we are unable to get across to the other in the right manner and mood. Either we are unable to communicate properly or the other has a deficit of empathy and empathetic listening. Many times we react without hearing the other one properly much to the annoyance of the other.

Deepika made a good freelance counsellor of sorts among her peers for she had ample patience to listen with empathy and the courage to digest every detail to keep it confidential. She was never the heart of a party or social gatherings but she was surely the one her peers sought when in trouble and pain. Half their pain would vanish with her attentive listening, understanding and smile. She was surprised one day when her senior professor too shared her personal dilemma with her in the library and she was dumbfounded! She was just a college student for the moment but she realised her strength and her innate ability which came naturally to her. She was flattered actually.

Mr. Y made a good boss simply for the reason that he was quick to understand the body language and the verbal intent of his staff and colleagues. He could empathise with the men and their family problems and could do this with the women folk as well. No wonder he was hugely popular with the women in the office! You can be sure that others were green with envy over his popularity, not realising their own inherent weakness of not being sensitive enough and empathetic about women specific problems.

Mrs. M discontinued her friendship with her childhood friend when she realised that she was gossiping about her and passing on vital information that was too personal and damaging to her image. She had now become apprehensive of expressing anything at all to anyone. The betrayal and backstabbing had profoundly hurt her and she clammed up. But this situation led to another series of problems such as isolation, loneliness, and sadness. She was a depressed woman as she was undergoing some serious personal issues in her life and what she needed the last thing in the world was gossip. What she actually needed was a good listener with an empathetic ear. She also needed someone whom she could put her faith in. However after this, she could not trust anyone any more unfortunately.

People come in all shapes and sizes. They come from diverse backgrounds and mindsets. There are differences in religious beliefs and social culture. Being human requires the ability to empathise with the differences and to try to understand their perspectives. This happens only when you ‘put yourself the shoes of the other’ and try to understand the subjective world from their angle. Reality is at most times subjective and to be able to see that ‘subjective reality’ of the other is empathy. Not a simple task at all- in fact it is a very tall order indeed. The mistake that we often do is ‘to judge them by our own reality and our own self created yardsticks! The ‘subjective reality’ is different for each one as it is influenced and developed by our psycho-social environment we are nurtured with and as we internalise it. Our own world becomes the prism through which we look at the entire world thus leading to distortions in myriad ways. We judge people by our own standards and expectations.

To understand and empathise with the other requires an open mind, the ability to think in diverse ways, the willingness to accept the diversity of cultures and thoughts, and a good degree of logical thinking. Emotional thinking becomes an obstacle in the process of empathy. Empathy also requires a high degree of self awareness and the understanding and acceptance of one’s own biases and prejudices. The emotional biases and prejudices are the filters that block out proper knowledge and rational thinking. It’s a skill that can be developed with thought and effort. Empathy helps in all walks of life- at home, in your workplace and in society. It helps build good relationships and helps build bridge between differences of thought and opinion. Empathy helps in integration of diversity. It is a virtue that is not understood rather it is misunderstood. One person said ‘empathy is the opposite of sympathy!’ The truth is that empathy is many notches higher than sympathy. Of all the virtues that we have been bestowed with by mother-nature, empathy stands the tallest.


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