Broadening Our Perspective: Empathy
This month I want to focus on broadening our perspective. We live in a world that’s constantly changing. Our challenges are becoming more complex—and so are our solutions. It’s easy to get stuck in our own perspective, and it can be hard to understand how others see the world – which can lead to inaction and stunted personal growth. But being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes is an essential skill for everyone to learn and a way to foster empathy and self-awareness.
Why empathy is important
And both are important for sustainability. Studies show that a “lack of empathy for nature and for others limits motivations to conserve the environment and enhance sustainability. The relationship between empathy and sustainability is crucial for pro-environmental and pro-social sustainability behavior. Understanding the connection between empathy and sustainability can help inform policy, urban planning, and international relations. So if we learn to enhance empathy, we can find new pathways for realizing sustainability outcomes.
It creates more caring and kind communities.
So in this episode, we will talk about how you can broaden your perspective for greater self-awareness, empathy, and, ultimately, sustainability.
Self Awareness + Empathy
Self-awareness is the ability to understand your own emotions, thoughts, and actions. It’s also important in many situations, like when you try to understand another person’s feelings by putting yourself in their shoes. Self-awareness can help you imagine what the other person feels —and then empathize, understand, and then share their emotions.
You may be able to practice this daily when you’re listening to a friend explain a situation at work where they feel they’re stressed, overworked, and can’t meet their deadlines. Or maybe you can relate to the anguish and grief they feel when someone loses something meaningful to them – like a pet, loved one, home, or otherwise.
You can understand their emotions and thoughts and then empathize with them – maybe because you’ve been in a similar situation and can recognize the same emotion, or because you put yourself in their shoes and imagined what it felt like. It goes a step beyond just acknowledging someone’s hardships to actually feeling the emotion.
Practicing this helps us not only understand others better, but to understand ourselves and our emotions better, allowing us to communicate our ideas in a way that makes sense to others.
One study with children showed that encouraging empathy lead to increased creativity, deep learning, emotional expressiveness, and open-mindedness. It increases our ability to solve problems – which extends beyond the human condition.
A behavioral scientist said,
“With empathy, we can understand others’ perspectives. With empathy, the ‘others’ can include trees, streams, lakes, forest animals, to better understand what an ecosystem needs. With empathy, listening becomes easier to understand differences to resolve conflicts in a more meaningful way.
For example …
Recycling people looked to schools to teach children; they got their parents involved, and recycling became a norm.
Huge numbers of students planned and participated in marches to reverse the problems caused by climate change; people in charge of the universities have done “greenwashing” and little of substance.
For every new home that’s designed to be net zero, developers build thousands the same way they’ve been built for many decades.
Sustainable living requires understanding of all involved in any situation or ecosystem. In order to change anything, understanding others’ perspectives is key. As the research suggests, increasing empathy also increases creativity and our problem-solving ability. It is the building block of anything new, especially a lifestyle change toward truly sustainable living.”
Why do we have less empathy?
Unfortunately, empathy levels have decreased over time – and even more drastically in the last few years. One of the most significant factors is the lack of deep, rich interaction with others. We tend to only talk to people through social media and post about our lives. It’s hard for us to understand one another if we don’t have conversations or listen to conversations that involve all types of people.
Most people we follow online think the same way as us, and we just share and maybe comment back on something we see – but further discussion into our feelings or thoughts, I’d say, is a rarity.
Many people have a tendency to get comfortable in their little bubbles and don’t try new things or hear from people who are different from them.
The Pandemic + Other social issues
On top of the lack of connection from social media, some people have experienced empathy burnout. One study showed that the “empathy ratings of respondents decreased by 14% during the pandemic” and that 61% of Americans have experienced empathy burnout to social justice issues during the pandemic.
This is the opposite of what we want to happen, but it makes sense because when we practice empathy we are feeling those emotions of others – not just understanding that they are there.
There is so much happening we just turn away from it.
We talked about how to build personal and community resilience in the last episode – which will help us to avoid this type of empathy burnout. It is a community effort carrying the weight of the world.
We must believe and see that the world is still rich with culture, ideas, and solutions in order to re-invigorate our empathy and reach our sustainability goals. We can do this by broadening our perspective – connecting with others in a way that doesn’t feel as heavy while allowing us to feel empathy.
Here are a few easy ways to broaden your perspective and build empathy for others.
The first way you can do this is by cultivating curiosity. Positive psychology says you can do this by spending time with people you don’t know well. Ask them about themselves, how they are, and their life. Be present with people when you talk to them – recognizing the subjects that make them passionate, happy, or sad. And practice active listening.
Diversify your social media
Another simple way to broaden your perspective without too much work is to diversify your social media. Follow people from different religious, ethnic, and political backgrounds on social media and listen to what they have to say. Maybe even consider DMing them to ask them questions about something they’ve posted.
We also talked about how important it was to travel sustainably so we could broaden our perspective of other cultures in a way that we wouldn’t be able to in our own bubble. Visiting a new place, meeting local people, and learning about a new culture is an amazing ways to broaden your perspective and build empathy.
A third way you can broaden your perspective is to read books. Reading books that make you feel uncomfortable or challenge your view of the world is a good way to broaden your perspective. Read about topics that are outside of your comfort zone, but don’t worry if you don’t understand them when you first start reading them—you’re going to learn a lot, and it gives you something to talk about with others. Find authors who write from perspectives different from yours and read their work.
Listen to Podcasts
And you probably guessed the last one – listening to podcasts is a great way to hear conversations from other people without having to expel the energy to have one yourself. You’ll be able to learn ways to ask questions of others and see how people from different backgrounds and perspectives interact – which will broaden your mind. This month, we will have some more people on the podcast to do just that.
Remember don’t to judge others based on their race, culture, or background when engaging in any of these things. Everyone will have different perspectives, which in some cases, might initially make you angry or confused. We should be able to respect that others have a right to share their beliefs and thoughts. That is part of the self-awareness and empathy journey.
In the end, it all comes back to empathy. When we interact with others and learn about them, we broaden our perspective and see the world differently. We become more empathetic. We learn to appreciate other people’s experiences. We can better understand other people’s perspectives. And this leads to better decisions in life (big or small). The more we can understand how others see the world, the better solutions we will be able to find, the stronger our communities will be, and we will be that much closer to a more peaceful future.
That’s why I believe it’s so important for all of us—from politicians to business leaders to everyday people—to broaden our perspective and gain a deeper understanding of what it means to be human.
Something to grow on
For this week’s something to grow on, I encourage you to broaden your perspective by doing one of the things I just listed. Notice how what the person is saying makes you feel and ask yourself, how do I know how the other person feels in the same situation?
I’ll end with an inspirational quote from Barrack Obama,
“Learning to stand in somebody else’s shoes, to see through their eyes, that’s how peace begins. And it is up to you to make that happen. Empathy is the quality of character that can change the world.“
Until next time, thanks for joining me, neighbor.
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