By Mahsa Amiri, Family Counselor & Life Skills Couch
“Treat everyone like you want to be treated and whatever is disagreeable to yourself do not do unto others.”
“Do to others what you would want them to do to you.” Bible, Luke 6:31
When we speak about a set of abilities, which provide harmony, positive and effective attitude, in fact we are referring to life skills. These abilities enable individuals to admit their responsibilities without causing damage to themselves and others and also to encounter more effective with demands, expectations and daily problems, especially in their inter-personal relationships.
In previous issue we mentioned that self-awareness is the most important step in improving relationships. With self-awareness, an individual can accept the responsibilities of the relationship, and try for what is indeed valuable in our life. Self-awareness skills could enable us to understand others, better while preparing for empathy.
Reviewing the Islamic laws in more detail, we recognize that the behaviors that result in the proliferation of affection between the various segments of the population are considered either required (wajib) or recommended (mustahab): “God commands justice, goodness, and generosity towards relatives .” and what caused the resentment, is haram:” And He forbids immorality, and injustice, and oppression. He advises you, so that you may take heed. ” In fact these instructions are the definition of empathy.
Certainly one of the positive and valuable aspects of Islamic teachings is the extent of emphasis on creating; love and relatedness between humans, by creating some laws to make the strong emotional relationship among humans to maintain a life full of empathy.
But what is the definition of empathy in psychology?
The Ability in understanding and perception feelings, thoughts and beliefs of others is referred to as empathy. The meaning of empathy is not compassion or approval by others; in fact it is only the understanding, just the opposite of blaming. Generally, empathy leads to understanding of how others feel, think and believe, and helps to find what is precious to them.
We all have used the terms “you don’t understand me” or “we don’t get along” in our social and professional life, referring to our spouse, family members, friends and co-workers. And when we ask each side of the relationship, they believe that the problem is due to a lack of understanding from other person. Maybe in times of crisis, like grieves or illness of one, the one – sided empathy can be expected, but normally in order to maintain an effective communication, mutual empathy is required.
Not only this skill creates comfort for others due to deep understanding, but also makes us more passionate in our relationship with the others, and that means empathy has benefits for one’s self, others and the relationship.
Lack of empathy could easily make challenge and conflict between spouses, children, colleagues and etc. This is the reason for a lot of counseling clinic visits.
Have a look at these examples:
• “Omid” and his wife have problem over how to spend the holidays almost every weekend. Sometimes one of them is too tired to do any activities and sometimes lack of a joint plan is the challenge.
• “Ashkan ” works in a marketing company, dealing directly with many people every day. He has some skills in communication, but these skills are not useful to attract and sell products to customers. Usually, people after speaking with “Ashkan” , appreciate him and leave him without buying anything
• “Sara” and ” Majeed ” have been married for several years, but if they do not have any dialogue about their children, there are almost no words exchanged between them. This has caused huge distance between them.
• It is difficult for “Hediyeh” to speak about her feelings and beliefs with her mother. Despite her mother’s welcoming approach to have open conversation with Hediyeh, she has failed to share her secrets with her mom
These examples show the lack of empathy between people under different conditions. As we have seen, if a sales associate fails to see the pros and cons of the product from the buyers’ perspective, he can’t convince them to buy that product.
Lack of empathy between partners causes unpleasant conversation, so they become far apart from each other and would not have a chance to recognize the interests of each other to solve their conflicts.
Also parents and children, due to differences between their age and experiences, sometimes cannot see things from each other’s point of view, which deprives them of knowing each other.
Lack of understanding, demands and conditions of others could easily break down the friendship and often lead to enmity. Perhaps that is why Imam Ali (Peace be upon him) said: “the best kindness and goodness is having empathy and companionship with religious brothers” .
Since empathy is a skill it can be developed by practice. At the beginning it could be a little difficult; however, remember that as a result of empathy, a safe and secure environment will be created, which creates a mutual empathy. The following items should be kept in mind for the purpose of maintaining empathy:
Self – awareness: as initially pointed out, with self-awareness people can understanding each other better.
Active listening: active listening is different from hearing; one of them is conscious, and another is without an intent. To improve empathy, one should practice active listening.
Expression of feelings: Expecting expression of feeling from opposite party in a relationship could result in both extortion and loss of trust amongst individuals.
Body language: don’t wait to hear someone’s request for empathy. Body language is often more clear than words. Note that you don’t have to have the ability of high rhetoric for empathy. Sometimes only your presence is enough.
Honesty: empathy without aiming to improve the relationship causes frustration and distrust.
Avoid giving advice: in most cases, giving advice and judgment means that we have more knowledge and we look at a higher position and it is clear that in this case empathy gets vanished.
During all stages of this journey, don’t forget that there is a difference between sympathy and empathy. To understand others better, we do not need to internalize their problems. According to Rogers (psychologist): Empathy is understanding the feelings of others, as if they are our own feelings emphasizing on the meaning of expression “as if”.
Understanding of your partner’s mood and behaviors, without any distraction, ignorance and defiance in a relationship has a major benefit. There will be no further arguments or waste of energy.
Whoever feels other’s empathy, does not spend his/her energy to prove himself or herself in showing the feelings. As a result, the majority of unnecessary friction would be resolved and the chance of reaching agreements would be increased.
If empathy has been a weakness in your relationships so far, and you plan to improve it, keep in mind that you need to be determined, since this could be a sudden change for your partner and could take a while to build the trust; therefore be patient and consistent.