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Empathy is about Perspective

"Get over yourself"

"Are you seriously worrying about this?"

"I wish that was all that was wrong in my life. "

"Damn, you should get some real problems."

Last week I was serving a young woman and her daughter. All of their groceries had gone through, payment had been made and final pleasantries were being exchanged. Out of nowhere the little girl screams, uncontrollably.

"Ahhhhhhhhh, mummy, mummy I lost it. "

She is hysterical and can't be calmed down.

"What's wrong sweetheart?" the mother replies.

"I've lost Missy's shoe."

"That's ok hunny, ssssh, ssssh, it will be ok. We're gonna find it."

The lady parked her trolly at the bottom of checkout, took her daughters hand and set off back around the store to find Missy's (a doll) shoe. A shoe that would be no bigger than the size of an almond. She left her £100 pounds worth of groceries to try and find something she would probably never find. The odd were not with her. And she never did find it. But you see that's not really the point.

"Oh to be that age - and have nothing better to worry about, " was the response from the next customer. She was a grumpy bitch as she went on to prove but her statement got me thinking.

"What would I have done in that situation?"

The average person who has 13 different places to be at one time and is always moving towards the next thing "doesn't have the time" or energy to search for something they will never find. It's an almond sized shoe for goodness sake and they're already late enough as it is.

The little girl will probably have forgotten about the shoe in a couple of hours. Surely it is of no consequence whatsoever. I mean c'mon stop enabling your child to be so spoilt.

Yet there was something beautiful in the mothers actions. It was one of the most empathetic responses I have seen in quite some time

For the purpose of the blog let' call the mother Amber and the daughter Molly Mae.

(absolutely no Love Island connection whatsoever)

Amber doesn't care about the shoe for herself. Of course she doesn't. She's a thirty year old woman. But she cares about Molly Mae. She cares about how her daughter feels. She wants her daughter to feel happy and in that moment that is more important to her than anything else.

I have no idea how long Molly Mae had that doll or how important it was to her. But Amber knew. She understood the significance of that doll to her daughter. By understanding and observing the situation from her daughter's perspective she was able to act in an empathetic way.

Had Amber only seen the situation from her own perspective she would already be in the car park, loading her groceries into her boot, and telling Molly Mae to calm down. Instead she was on her hands and knees around Tesco looking for an almond (shoe)

You may think Amber's actions were stupid and a waste of time. You may wanted to tell her to catch a grip and get on with more important things. That would be a fairly normal response I guess. But honestly in that moment I admired what she did. She never found the shoe but she taught me something and she let her daughter know her concerns were valid.

Empathy is all about perspective

Its's a myth that you have to be like someone to understand them. Of course it helps and speeds up the entire process but it's certainly possible to help and connect with someone whose context is completely alien to yours. That's where empathy kicks in.

"Skilled empathy helps you take the perspective of others and to imagine what life feels like for them – how they feel, how they approach situations, what their intentions are, and how they’ll respond to others and to circumstances. When you correctly take the perspective of others, you’ll often imagine the emotions that others might be feeling (or might soon feel in response to an action you might take), rather than directly share those emotions."

(Karla McLaren)

Put simply, empathy is all about putting yourself in someone else's shoe. It's about seeing the world through their eyes. Seeing a problem from their perspective not from yours.

Let me apply that to Molly Mae. Let's imagine I was trying to empathize with her. First let's consider my starting point.

I have never been a 3 year old girl. I have never had a doll. So by default I have never played with a doll. So by default I have never had a connection with a doll. So by default I have never lost a doll's shoe. So my starting point is completely alien to Molly Maes. I cannot understand her. I don't get why she is so upset.

In this moment I have two choices. I can either give up on empathy, say something sympathetic like "aw poor you" and go about my day. Or I choose empathy.

If I choose empathy, that has to start with me changing my perspective. I have to strive to understand not what losing a shoe feels like to me, but what it feel like to Molly Mae.

I have to ask her how she feels. I have to take the time to discuss how much that little doll means to her. I have to try and understand the relationship that they have and why losing the shoe has such a profound effect on her.

This is a really simplistic example. I know that. And empathy is certainly not that easy in every case. Or in any case. Real empathy is freaking difficult and can take a lot of time, effort and patience.

It involves forsaking yourself and your own perspective in the pursuit of truly understanding how something feels for someone else.

True empathy is what struggling people really need. They don't need to know how their situation would make you feel or what you would do. They need you to make the effort to understand them and validate the fact that it' ok for them to feel they way do. They need to know you want to understand them and care enough to actually pursue it.

Choose Empathy

Help-Molly-Mae -find-her-shoe.



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Check out my earlier blog on sympathy and empathy here

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