How To Practice Empathy With People I Am Irritated With
Practicing empathy, especially towards those we don’t like or understand, is not an easy task. For many, the Lunar New Year season is often fraught with anxiety and anguish because of family encounters.
As far as possible, I always strive to focus on the best in people, but it is a fact that empathy comes more easily for some than others. While it is undeniably a challenge to relate to people that irritate us, bridging that gap can be unexpectedly rewarding.
Here are some typical questions people detest being asked yet know will come knocking during family visits:
- “You’ve put on weight. What happened?”
- “Why are you so skinny?”
- “Have you already found yourself a boyfriend?”
- “When are you two tying the knot?”
- “When are you going to have kids?”
- “Have you managed to find a job since you lost yours last year?”
- “How much are you earning?”
- “Have you recouped your losses?”
- “I heard you went through a horrible time during Covid. Has business improved?”
Here are some points to think about for those asking these questions:
- It’s really none of your business to remind someone of something so sensitive just because your life is okay.
- Are you aware that these questions are really not appropriate because it would inevitably make the person feel worse or at best indifferent?
- Does it make you feel better reminding someone of their anguish just to make yourself feel better?
- What does it do for you if things have not changed or if it really did? Would it regulate how you feel?
- Is it a blind spot or a well-being indicator for you to either feel better or worse upon learning the truth?
- Are you prepared to step in and do something if indeed the other party’s circumstances have not changed? Otherwise, why ask?
Here’s my take for those on the receiving end of those questions:
- We are raised differently: Certain people have been born and bred in a toxic environment where there are no holds barred and few inhibitions. I more often feel pity rather than anger. We do not have to retort nor defend. I would answer what I feel comfortable answering.
- Control and Influence: We are in one of 3 mental spaces when we receive such questions. Am I fully in Control of this? Am I not in control of this? Do I have some influence over how I answer this question? Depending on your perception and confidence, it will differ. I choose to be in Control of most if not all circumstances. I will answer if I feel comfortable and I will choose to tell someone that I’d rather leave the past behind and talk about things I am happier to talk about.
- We are in different places: You are going to meet all kinds of people. The showy, humble, quiet, loud, bashful kind. You do not have to emulate anyone because we are fundamentally different. That aside, I have come to conclude something after years of observing different behaviours. The ‘showy’ ones who talk about themselves without much pause and try to make you feel inferior by inflating their ego actually feel really low about themselves. And that is why they constantly need to inflate their own. The truly successful yet humble people feel so grounded, they hardly need to remind themselves about how fortunate they are because they are living every second of it.
From an EQ perspective, there are 5 practices that can elevate your ability to navigate the path from apathy to empathy:
- Active Listening: Give full attention to the person speaking. Listen not just to their words but also to emotions and body language. Pace with them and reflect back what you hear to show you are truly present. They may just recognize that you truly are interested and the mood can shift.
- Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Imagine if you were in their situation. Stretch yourself to understand their perspective, experiences and emotions, and attempt to see the world through their lens. We learn less from revising our own world but everything is new in someone else’s.
- Cultivate curiosity: Ask non-judgmental, open-ended questions. Show your willingness to understand their thoughts and feelings without imposing your own opinions or making assumptions.
- Validate Their Feelings: Acknowledge their emotions even if you disagree or do not fully understand them. Doing this shows you care.
- Practice Self-Reflection: Reflect on your own biases, prejudices, and preconceptions that may get in the way of your capacity to empathize.
By integrating these 5 EQ-based practices into your interactions with people you struggle to understand, you can strengthen your empathetic skill and forge more meaningful connections. As they say, practice makes perfect, or at least easier, so try it out today and observe the benefits in your professional and personal life.