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Reflections on the Importance of Empathy

Every year, on New Year’s Day, I spend a fair amount of time reflecting on how I want to intentionally move through the year ahead and cultivate meaning, satisfaction, and joy. This year, I keep coming back to the importance of empathy, and how fundamental empathy is to our own personal wellbeing, the wellbeing of those we interact with and the consequences for the wellbeing of humanity more broadly.

Our interdependence as humans is simultaneously felt at a very basic level as we move about our day, and too often minimized as we cling to the illusion of separateness. The fabric that connects us such a thin veil, and yet weighted in complexity. We evolved with a great need to rely on other humans, on the community, to survive and certainly to thrive. Even though our modern American culture has evolved to be able to operate and survive more independently, we are well-aware of the research showing the devastating effects of loneliness and social isolation on overall wellbeing, from mental health impacts to chronic disease and decreased life expectancy. And yet, true connection, and ultimately a fulfilled and meaningful life, requires us to step outside of ourselves and seek to understand, appreciate, and connect with the human in front of us. This is empathy – the ability to imagine what another person might be experiencing, to put ourselves in someone else’s position to achieve greater understanding and connection. And while this definition is simple, the intentional act of empathy is far more complex.

The Lens of Attribution Bias

We live our lives behind the windows of our own eyes, taking in the world naturally from one perspective. The way our brains are wired allows us to make quick judgements about the world around us through the frame of reference that we hold (namely our own world view). Much psychological research has been done on the concept of attribution bias – an example being that we are more likely to attribute other’s actions that are offensive to us as reflective of their personality and not based on other context or circumstances that may be influencing their behavior.

Think about for a moment, if you’ve had a negative interaction with someone greeting you at a doctor’s office, or at a coffee shop or restaurant. Perhaps they barely made eye contact, were rushed, or pressured in their tone or appeared annoyed at your request. What was the first thought or reaction you had? Perhaps you thought, gosh, this person is rude and not nice. Furthermore, how did you feel when you walked away from that interaction? Did you walk away feeling frustrated or angry? Was it hard to shake the feeling and did that impact the rest of your day and your interactions with others? Attributing someone’s behavior to their personality can be so automatic that it often feels like the truth, when in actuality, more often than not, there is a context for the person’s behavior beyond their inherent personality.

Practicing Intentional Empathy

Intentional empathy can be the antidote to attribution bias. And empathy is not useful only because it is the “nice” way to be. Practicing empathy has tremendous benefits for our own mood and wellbeing, can transform the experience of the person in front of us, leads to more effective collaboration and problem solving, and more fulfilling relationships.

On the other hand, if we aren’t intentional about practicing empathy, the walls that we build between ourselves and others based on assumptions, misjudgments, bias can have a devastating effect on how we end up treating others in response, and our own moods and sense of connection with others.

A Radical Acceptance

At Jefferson Center, we have a fundamental that guides our behavior; how we treat each other, our community, and the people that we serve. It is “Treat Everyone with Dignity and Respect,” and speaks to treating others in a way that honors their self-worth and respects their value as unique individuals. We ask of ourselves to have a “radical acceptance of all people,” and this is not a simple or easy ask. This means that we challenge our initial assumptions and judgements, that we recognize when attribution bias distorts the way we perceive and interact with others, that we take the extra step to understand the context that we are in, that we recognize the often invisible context of the other person, and in good faith, trust, that the person in front of us has a story to tell, that they have unique strengths and value and that despite the flaws that we all have, we are all doing the absolute best we can with the circumstances we are in.

We know that unchecked bias and judgement can not only lead to short term frustrations and interpersonal conflict but can also be acted out and perpetuated through bullying, oppression, marginalization, and a pervasive othering that fundamentally disconnects and separates us as humans. And all this frays the edges of our self-concept, the way we feel about ourselves, the safety and belonging we feel in the world, our confidence in moving towards a valued life, our resilience in the face of human experiences that test us all.

My most fundamental intention moving into the year ahead is to move through my day with eyes open to the unique beauty and the unique struggle of the people I encounter. To practice empathy with both the strangers I meet with a story unknown, and those who I hold close and still often fail to see, accept, and appreciate for all of who they are.

My wish, and my ask, is that you do the same. When someone is unkind, perhaps they are struggling and need your radical acceptance. And if you give it, through YOUR practice of empathy, your acts of kindness, perhaps the next time they are struggling in their lives, they will pause and find resilience through choosing to pass forward the kindness and empathy they received from you.

With gratitude,

Dr. Kiara Kuenzler CEO, Jefferson Center

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