Wednesday, 11 March 2015

E for Empathy

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” 
― Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

When the kids have a hard day at school and come back complaining about how they “just don’t get that person”, I usually use this quote as a default aid. I studied “To Kill a Mockingbird” when I was fourteen at school and I still remember this quote today. The idea that you could even put someone’s skin on and walk around it may not appeal to some, but for me, I found that the metaphor was a really effective expression of trying to make someone feel like that other person.

The need to empathise pops up everywhere. At work, I see people who are having a bad day and need help with a problem;  at home, I am hit simultaneously by both sensations of buzzing elation and heavy disappointment and I have to ride that wave-like feeling with my loved ones, often. But I don’t think we need to learn how to empathise; it’s innate in us and even without knowing what we’re doing, we use empathy to understand characters in our own story and the part they play in the events that unfold around us.

I actually used empathy to get out of a difficult situation once, in my junior school playground. I was being bullied. There were two girls, one was small and sly, the other was slower but built like a tank, both were in my year group. They had spotted that I was a bit of a loner and they liked teasing me about having no friends.  One day, both girls cornered me as the bell went for break. Before they had a chance to remind me that I had no one to hang out with, I pre-empted, tentatively with “So I've heard that one of you is leaving town? What a shame (looking concerned at this point), the other will be all alone, I know how that feels!” The girls, thrown off-guard, stared at one another, confused and I made my escape whilst they argued about who was leaving and who would be left alone. Neither bully had worked out that I had bluffed; of course no one was going anywhere. But I figured that in order to get them off my back, I needed to make them feel like I did, vulnerable and alone.

They never really bothered me after that; if they tried, I’d just find another way to make them feel, to make them empathise. And I think that when I stopped looking like a victim around them, they stopped looking upon me as prey.

So whenever I am in a tricky situation with someone these days, I stop and remember that they are human too, thinking that there must be some way to understand their point of view and I try to tune into how they are feeling. Just like climbing inside their skin and taking a walk around in it. 

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