Other People's Pain?

The rancor in our society has more people than ever on opposite ends of the opinion spectrum. Friendships have been lost over political differences, families broken up because of conflicts over values, and people dividing over race, sexual identity, economic status and, sadly, even more reasons. It's left people feeling challenged on how to respond to those they disagree with who are experiencing pain.

So, here is a question; can you truly have empathy for someone you disagree with or dislike? It's more than a simple yes or no answer, and it's one requiring an understanding of the differences between empathy and sympathy. The two terms often get used interchangeably though they are really two different reactions. I boil it down this way; empathy is an understanding of the other person's feelings and why they feel the way they do. It does not require you have the same feelings or beliefs as the other person. If in a similar situation, you may think you would feel or act differently. In sympathy, there is more of a sharing of feelings. You may even believe and want to act in the same way as the other person. In general, I have found most people appreciate empathy more than sympathy. They feel their own experiences are unique, and having others say "I know exactly how you feel" is not helpful.

Now back to the essence of the question, can you have empathy for someone you believe has behaved in an offensive or despicable way? Albert Ellis, Ph.D. of Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy (REBT) would likely say yes and go even farther to say being able to have empathy for people who upset you is essential to emotional well-being. Thinking people must believe and behave the way we want them to, according to Ellis and others, is irrational. And irrational thinking lends itself to anger, hostility, hate, and the hurtful behaviors that go with those thoughts and feelings.  

My hope is your able to answer the question with a yes, seeking first, as Stephen Covey stated, to understand before being understood. The reality is people do not have to think or act as we may feel they must. Expecting they should backs us into a corner of limited thinking and responses which are usually not positive. To truly listen with the intent of understanding connects us with the other person, and, if trust did not already exist, provides a pathway to it. When we are in a conversation just waiting for our turn to talk, we are not listening with the intent to understand. This lack of understanding, or empathy, causes conflict and pain damaging all parties involved.

The reality is, if you choose to, you can have empathy for anyone. And by practicing empathy, you might find an appreciation for the experiences or perspectives of others. If that does not appeal to you, remember the old adage of "the person who listens the best in a conversation is often perceived as having the greater authority". In other words, listening and empathy are not weaknesses they are strengths and, in my opinion, essential to being an emotionally healthy person of good character.

I appreciate your taking the time to read this blog. Please go to the Clarion Counseling & Consulting website https://www.clarioncc.net to view future blogs posted the first of each month. Looking forward to your comments and please contact me if you have any questions about my services or want to set up an appointment.