Imagine yourself being put in a situation that is familiar to you. Your brain recognizes the pattern, and you act according to the definition of reality dictated by your personal experience. Now, imagine somebody else in the exact same situation. Theoretically, you know the outcome. But what happens if the person responds differently? You lose control over the situation, because it is no longer your situation, it is unprecedented and perplexing to you. Now, there are two possible solutions: you can remain lost or you can expand your definition of the situation. Expanding the definition means going through mental effort of understanding motives and behavioral patterns of the other person. This process of putting your psychological self into somebody else’s shoes is called empathy.
Empathy is the key to control your reality by seeing a bigger picture, and accepting its existence. Using empathy in your personal and professional life can expand the range of your social roles, making your life a lot easier and certainly more fulfilling.
THE SOCIAL CHAMELEON
Empathic thinking can help you adjust to every social situation you find yourself in. You just observe people that surround you, and accept their presence. The more you pay attention to them, the more it is likely that you will involuntarily mirror their posture, even sometimes their accent. Unintentional mimicry is typical of people with highly developed empathic skills. The research has shown that the chameleon effect increases the level of likability, and allows every interaction to go smoother.
THE MAN OF PERSPECTIVE
Empathy allows you to mentally step aside, and observe the situation from a more objective point of view, which is very helpful in problem solving, because perspective thinking is a perfect tool for providing long-term solutions. When you detach yourself from the situation and look at it less emotionally, you are able to redefine it. Moreover, perspective thinking help you act, even if you are shy or indecisive. How is it possible? It is pure biology; perception and action have the same code of representation in our brain. Whenever perception thinking stimulates the brain, it simultaneously sends signals to the motor areas, provoking us to act immediately upon receiving a satisfactory solution. Marina Abramović, a Balkan performer, often uses this link to convey her artistic statement. ‘I want people to stop being the observers, I want them to be active, conscious.’ She does it by torturing herself or letting others to do “whatever they please” to her. There are people who hurt her, but there is always somebody who finally finds courage to stop the performance.
THE TEAM LEADER
Have you ever been to a meeting which ended up with everybody jumping to each other´s throats? It often happens when people just spit out their opinions not paying any attention to the aim of the meeting, nor to its participants. But what happens when people allow themselves to understand, and take into consideration more aspects? Their thinking is radically changed, they form a social linkage which units their perspective. The picture is bigger from now on, but it is more coherent, hence easier to manage. Great team leaders and successful negotiators use this basic feeling to achieve their goals. ´Empathy demonstrates accurate, non-judgmental understanding of another’s needs and interests,´ says Robert Mnookin of Harvard Negotiation Research Project. By detaching yourself from emotions and restraining from social or racial background, you can see more options, thus be more resourceful.
Being able to recognize emotions of other people puts you in a better position during every dispute that you might find yourself in. Naming the emotion lessens the impact which it carries. Your goal is to make a person think rationally, and provide a mutually beneficial solution. Emotions like anger, disappointment or despair are irrelevant to solving anything. They cloud the picture. People often forget about the aim, stuck in the phase when they just blame each other. Being able to put feelings aside and look at the problem from the perspective of both sides involved, allows you to deal with the unpleasant situation more efficiently – without having to pay high emotional costs of every quarrel.
Recognizing emotions of other people can teach you how consciously and objectively name your own feelings. Empathy is not only about other people, it is also about you. But recognition is not everything. Now you have to understand the reason, use your empathic abilities to research yourself, to understand yourself. Sometimes the reason you are angry or disappointed is minor or does not matter in comparison to the bigger picture. Upon understanding it, we are often surprised by our own emotions, and accordingly, we adjust them to the redefined situation. The more you detach yourself from the source of bad emotion, the more objectively you can look into the situation. Such developed self-control makes your life better, since, according to Dr Kentaro Fujita of Ohio State University, with improved emotional responses you gain self-esteem and increased satisfaction from your life and from people surrounding you.
Empathy forces you to rethink, and redefine the situation by widening your point of view through other possibilities. Those mechanisms prevent you from automatic decisions and actions, that you are accustomed to. When you stop acting automatically, you start acting consciously, meaning, you are aware of your goal, and you are working toward achieving it. Having a precise aim helps you achieve it quicker, saves you a lot of energy. Upon understanding what you really want to gain, you can set a conscious and short path for obtaining your goal. Defining the goal makes you feel better about yourself.
Empathy improves the performance of a social group. You don’t have to change the world, but you can try to change your personal environment by changing the way you think. You are the most important person in your reality, but at the same time you contribute to reality of others and vice versa. Remembering this simple truth can in fact change your world.