Shall we reflect on empathy?
The important thing is to think and feel with those sharing their time, experience and narratives with us. This openness to others’ emotions can also bring us discomfort, but they challenge our construction and learning.Carlos Barros
When working with socially vulnerable populations, in academic research or community intervention, it is necessary to acquire a set of social skills from the outset. We can provide better support by understanding the real needs of that individuals/groups and, at the same time, also be aware of our own well-being.
This synergistic way of seeing ourselves in interaction with others is a primordial condition for us to focus on the real needs of our “perceivable whole” (professional-self/ personal-self). From my perspective and experience, empathy is what we have to develop right away for this long journey.
Empathy is an essential condition for establishing a connection – which becomes essential for those trying to work towards better relations with one another, which is the aim of the various stakeholders in Integral Human Development (IHD).
While working on my postdoctoral project, I decided it was time to reflect on the importance of empathy. After adapting a data collection instrument for my postdoctoral project, I verified a curious element of this process:
One step in this adaptation was interviews with experts – who were tasked with reflecting aloud on the connection between their work, their learning, data from readings and possible needs for greater intra and interpersonal well-being with themes of resilience in transnational families.
The participants were from different fields such as: i) migrations, ii) social cognition, iii) family studies, iv) gender studies and digital literacy, v) intervention with (e)migrant community, vi) work-life balance, vii) ethics, viii) resilience and well-being. Although with different backgrounds, the experts always provide an atmosphere of sharing, not coded in words in the analysis software but perceptible as a need to “put on the shoes of the Other” to go beyond the obvious.
We must accept and acknowledge the emotions, experiences and expectations of others without judging, without letting our personal framework of values and norms interfere with what we are hearing and working.
Perhaps the way to start is to be an active listener – to know that more important than any judgement is always to have a “listening ear” for that reality that may be closer or further away from what we defend. The important thing is to think and feel with those sharing their time, experience and narratives with us.
This openness to others’ emotions can also bring us discomfort, but they challenge our construction and learning. Not long ago, in a seminar on well-being, a teacher shared with us, “how many of us have not heard: don’t even share things that make me uncomfortable. I get immersed in the problem, and I can’t get out”, but when we were nodding yes, she said: “well, it’s not easy, but we have a super effective tool: compassion”.
In fact, compassion is something we should aim for in our professional-self or our personal-self: when we are with a person who shares something that leaves him/her in pain, we can help, guide, in whatever way we can reduce the others’ pain, but it is important to establish limits between what belongs to yourself and the Other so that we don’t drown in the problem. When we want to save someone from drowning in a pool, we have to be able to swim towards the person and pull them out without both going dragged underwater.
So, it is crucial to establish empathy but to know that compassion is a tool to stay afloat and be aware that there is always courage in vulnerability. Being courageous, implies uncertainty and risk, which leads to change – be it us, the context or everything. In other words: the thin line where we risk fear to see beyond.
We have all been vulnerable, and it is indeed an important step toward courage. It is when we can step out of the uncomfortable space and make decisions that we reach a new world of options.
There will not always be only positive emotions, also some negative ones, but the feeling of achievement and belonging will make all the different stages of life with awareness.
And this is how we can change lives (including our own), by viewing the world emphatically, connecting with compassion and, above all, gratitude to those who are brave enough to solve their challenges with our participation. It is in this dynamic that lies lifelong learning, in which we are all connected.
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