Understanding Empathy

Understanding Empathy

Blog entry by Virginia Sherban MSW. Reg. Social Worker

The fundamental key to achieve understanding, and ultimately better connections, in all types of human relationships, is empathy.

As I understand it, empathy can be defined as the efforts we make to try to understand someone from their own perspective. It involves having to imagine what things might be like for someone else taking into consideration as many aspects of their lives as possible. At minimum, these would have to include:

  • Gender and age
  • Developmental stage
  • Socio-economic status
  • Education level
  • History
  • How they have made sense of their life experiences
  • Physical abilities and/or limitations¬†
  • Gender identity
  • Sexual orientation
  • Ethnic background
  • Cognitive capacity
  • Sensitivities and particular temperaments they were born with

Can you already see the problem?

We will never truly be able to understand because we are not them. Each and every one of us is unique and therefore we experience the world and other people differently from everyone else. Uniqueness is one of the things that make us most human and yet our biggest need as humans is to connect meaningfully with others by seeking commonality and belonging. It is a complex task and one that often makes relationships challenging.
Understanding Empathy

navigating relationship challenges

Some simple ways to navigate this and create bonds rather than sever them, is to view and listen to each other with curiosity and compassion. People are always trying to do the best they can with the skills and resources they have in that moment. Our abilities are often context related, meaning that we may be a lot kinder and patient for example, if we do not feel hurt or threatened in that particular moment. Likewise, we may not be able to respond kindly or fairly if we are feeling scared, overwhelmed or angry.

Listening, hearing and validating another person’s right to have thoughts and feelings that are unique to them can go a long way to promote healthy relationships.¬†

Therefore, to summarize, despite our best efforts to understand, it is important to know that although we may relate to somebody’s experience, we will never completely understand them. For that reason, simple statements like “please tell me more,” “I would like to understand,” or “I know I can’t fully understand you, but I wish I could because you are important to me,” will likely go a lot further in promoting connection than the phrase “I understand.”

Article by: Virginia Sherban

Virginia Sherban
Virginia is a clinical social worker/therapist working out of Calgary, Alberta, Canada. She works with individuals, couples, and families of all ages and all backgrounds.