Beyond the Tried and True Empathy Skills pt. 3

At this point, we understand that each person enters the world with a unique frame of reference; and sometimes, we’re led to division - operating within echo chambers of likeness and rarely building empathy across difference. Actualizing a fully inclusive society can’t be an “us vs. them” issue. No one is disposable in a functioning, thriving community.

We know some of the tried and true approaches toward empathy (create brave spaces, lean into discomfort, listen to understand rather than to inform, validate others’ feelings and experience, etc.) but there are other, often more challenging skills to develop - especially as allies taking risks for communities that experience oppression:

  • (Re)Build a sense of curiosity. At one point in our lives - often, as children - most of us experience insatiable curiosity. While venturing into adulthood, the desire for knowledge and understanding about everything narrows and may even diminish. The benefits of a strong sense of curiosity? The drive to ask questions and embrace humility - understanding that we have much to learn from those around us.
  • Find common ground and share stories. It’s easier to establish relationships through connection. Work to find a mutual foundation (however big or small) to build from. As different as we may be from another person, chances are you have something in common. (i.e. You would eat breakfast burritos for every meal, too?! or I’ve never met someone else who had a bowl cut until the age of twelve!)
  • Decenter yourself by turning off your alarm system. Yes, triggers are real. And they’re entirely valid. When we’re constantly on edge - ready to pounce on a misspoken word, phrase, or idea that strays from the realm of a socially just world - we may miss out on an opportunity for growth and understanding. It’s a heavy responsibility, but in order to practice true empathy, we must assume best intent - responding with patience and compassion. This is hard, and it can be hurtful - so make sure you’re as physically and psychologically safe as you need to be too.
  • Make space for your emotional processing. Working for empathy across difference - especially when issues are so personal - is taxing. We don’t need to push aside our own beliefs or feelings in the process. Make time to take care of yourself by finding camaraderie for support and relief or your own best practices for recuperation.

The reality is, empathy is a skill much larger than “putting yourself in someone else's shoes.” Consider this a reminder (and a challenge) not to take the easy way out by staying in our communities of likeness, but instead, taking the difficult path of expanding our communities across difference. Borrowing from Audre Lorde, “Without community, there is no liberation...but community must not mean a shedding of our differences, nor the pathetic pretense that these differences do not exist.”

We will not be free until we are all free, and no one is left behind.