With all of this talk about the importance of empathy, as it contributes to our personal happiness and fulfillment in relationships, you may wonder what constitutes an empathic reaction.
Below find examples of how you might choose to show empathy toward other people by way of your words, body language, and behavior.
Empathy example 1
Your wife comes home from work and sits on the couch. After resting for several minutes, she dozes off. Before you know it, dinner time is close and you have somewhere to be. You would have liked to eat before leaving.
Here, you might choose to become aggravated. After all, your wife is the one who gets dinner on the table on most nights.
Choosing empathy in this situation requires that you take a few extra moments to regard your wife crashed out on the couch. How does she look? Tired? Why might she be tired? Maybe you can recall a reason why your wife has run out of energy. Did she stay up late with a sick child last night?
Having empathy in this situation means trying to imagine how tired your wife must have felt after her rough night nursing your son or daughter who was coughing or had a fever. She went to work on little sleep, and now she has run out of fuel to get dinner ready in a timely fashion.
How can your empathy help you become a more understanding and cooperative partner in your life? Maybe you can imagine how worried she felt last night tending to a sick child. Maybe you can also figure out how to be of help. Can you throw together a quick soup-and-sandwich dinner for the family? How might that make your wife feel, to wake up and have food warmed and ready to eat?
Empathy example 2
Sometimes in social situations, we get into unexpected conflict situations. Suppose that you live near a river and recently found a great, out-of-the-way spot to fish off the shore. It isn’t far from where you live. So one day, you’re parked there and about to cast off. Suddenly a man comes out of nowhere demanding to know what you’re doing there. He is asking if you’re from the area, who gave permission to park here, and other questions.
Your initial reaction might be to become defensive. Why right does this person have to grill you when you’re fishing on state-owned land? You think about telling him to mind his business and bug off.
Having empathy in this situation might be to consider the perspective of this local person. He seems to be defending his territory. It’s making you feel uncomfortable, but from his point of view, you’re a stranger and you could cause a potential problem. Anything from leaving trash to bringing unsavory characters around the area to parking in a tow-away zone could become an issue.
Instead of instigating the situation further, you choose your words carefully. You want this man to know that you respect his turf and that you would likely do the same if confronted by a stranger who could potentially bring trouble to an unofficial favorite spot that the locals regularly enjoy for recreation purposes.
After the tense moment is past, you tell him a bit about yourself and let the man know that you, too, are a resident of the area. You ask him questions about how this spot was used before and what his concerns are. Being spoken to in a respectful manner causes the man to let down his guard, and he shifts to a more friendly demeanor.
By the end of the conversation, you have reached an understanding that you will abide by the unofficial rules of the locals who come to this spot, in exchange for being able to do so yourself.
Empathy Example 3
You’re late to a friend’s birthday party because you forgot to buy a gift. Then you realize that it’s Sunday, and the store where you had planned to pick up a special art kit for your friend’s child, is closed. You run into a neighborhood drug store to grab a card quickly before heading over there a good 40 minutes after the time that you were asked to arrive.
When you get there, you offer your friend a hasty and shame-faced explanation of why you were late. You mention forgetting to buy the gift in a timely fashion.
Instead of your friend becoming irritated with you for interrupting the party, she listens quietly to your apology and explanation. Then she smiles and invites you to come in and enjoy a glass of wine and some snacks. “It happens to the best of us,” she says, hoping to comfort you.
Your friend has displayed empathy by noticing that you were a bit frazzled upon entering the party due to your own disorganized state and subsequent lateness. She recalls a few times that she herself showed up long past the hour because something derailed her from being on time. Instead of giving you grief for being careless, she empathizes with your plight and chooses instead to simply welcome you and enjoy your company for the remainder of the time you’ll be together and celebrating.