One of the most important lessons that we have collectively learned in the last few years is that relationships matter, and it is the quality of these connections that matters most. Relationships hold us up during troubled times, they contribute to better psychological and physical health, they connect us to larger community and are the cornerstone of living a fulfilling life. Empathy has surfaced to the top as the most crucial ingredient in creating and maintaining healthy relationships in all aspects of life: with family, friends, colleagues, in leadership, parenting, caregiving, in our faith communities, schools and businesses.
Most of us have heard of the importance of empathy, and yet we tend to confuse empathy with sympathy. When we don’t fully understand what empathy is or how to practice it, our relationships suffer. We may think we are being empathic and caring by giving advice, pointing those who are suffering to the silver lining of their situation or cheering them up. Even though our intentions are good, we inadvertently end up doing the opposite of what we intend to do--leaving the person feel misunderstood and disconnected rather than understood and connected.
When we have not learned the “how-tos” of empathy, we tend to rely on cliches we have heard, or we problem solve as a way of being a good listener. We want to show we care, we just don’t know how to do it. If empathy means tuning into someone’s emotions, how do we express that? If it doesn’t mean saying “I am so sorry for you,” or “I know exactly how you feel,” what can we say or do instead?
The good news is that not only can we get better at experiencing empathy, we can also get better at practicing it in all our relationships.
This is where the new book by Justin Bretscher and Dr. Kenneth Haugk, The Gift of Empathy, fills the gap. Drawing on their combined experience and research of over 4,000 individuals, the authors introduce empathy through relatable stories and real-life experiences. People learn best through storytelling and the authors take full advantage of this to show the readers what empathy looks like by using plentiful real-life stories, examples, and tips.
The first seven chapters focus on what empathy is and what it isn’t, how to tune into other people’s feelings, show compassion, listen, support, and validate their experience in meaningful ways. Bretscher and Haugk also point out the obstacles to empathy–the slippery slope of wanting to fix, judge or debate as well as other empathy busters, and offer different ways of overcoming them.
I have yet to find another book on empathy that also focuses on the specific ways for practicing empathy in all relationships: with spouses, children, parents, siblings, friends, and coworkers. This is what makes The Gift of Empathy a true stand-out among others. Chapters 8-13 focus on the specific aspects of these relationships, the challenges they present, and offer ways to see empathy as the great connector in all situations.
The authors finish the book with a vision for an empathy-filled world since “empathy is something we all need and it’s something we can all give.” May this vision come true as we all continue to practice empathy with one another!
The Gift of Empathy is available directly through Stephen Ministries at www.TheGiftOfEmpathy.org.