Empathy: one pathway to being more humane Empathy: one pathway to being more humane

In times when the world is a divided place, we need to unite around understanding and tolerance, and being empathetic is key.

Medical advisor: Alexander Rodríguez – psychologist, master in education

“The feeling of identifying with someone”. That is the dictionary definition for the word “empathy,” a word that is often heard today in different contexts that is gaining importance in societies that want to be more inclusive and collaborative – or, in other words, more humane.

Social empathy refers to people helping each other in an altruistic way, without any conditions. “We live in a society where what ‘I need’ takes priority, where we push each other to the side to be first. When you begin to question yourself about what goes on behind these actions, you realize that we have not been educated empathetically to deal with others who are the same as ourselves, or even with others who are different,” explains Alexander Rodríguez Bustamante, the coordinator of the family therapy program at Luis Amigó Catholic University. In collaboration with the Medellín and Montería branches of Pontificia Bolivariana University, Rodríguez just finished a study on empathy and pro social behavior at Luis Amigó.

For the specialist, an empathetic person is someone who listens, and understands their own problems and emotions, as well as those of others. “In sentences like ‘We had a connection,’ what people are actually stating is that there was empathy between them, something that humans achieve through having conversations and relating to each other. When a person is emotionally in synch with another, these words move onto another level and can be communicated just with a look.”

Someone who is empathetic is able to respect the differences of others and live in harmony with their surroundings.

The foundations for empathy

Among family, at school and during the first years of life are when the foundations are laid that lead people to develop empathy. Children that grow up in an empathetic environment will turn into responsible, respectful adults that are committed to life, happiness, forgiveness and reconciliation, and will understand that the world is something that is shared.

As Rodríguez indicates, this is why empathy is rooted in conversation and in being attentive, both of which allow for connections with others. “Sometimes, we can be in social contexts, but we are checking our social networks, and when a question comes up, we answer automatically. We lose eye contact, and positive connections; we lose out on who the person talking to me is, who needs my attention.”

Social empathy is about establishing relationships that help to understand the situations that others experience. While we all have different experiences, and nobody can truly put themselves in the shoes of others, this ability to identify with others’ experiences will be a source of motivation to create a better, more supportive and united country. As our therapist confirms, “This will make us better equipped to live together in peace”.

The three keys to school being an empathetic environment

  • Students are humans who go to school to communicate with different people and interact with others in a respectful environment.
  • Schools must serve as non-judgmental environments. Each student is full of meaningful emotional experiences and has unique family situations.
  • This is one of the settings where cooperative experiences are most strongly experienced such as figuring out how to establish relationships and helping others.

Start at home

Researcher Alexander Rodríguez Bustamante mentions five different strategies for creating environments that are conducive to social empathy that can be fostered at home and further developed at school.

  1. Family is the first place where we learn and gain an understanding of self-respect and respect for others.
  2. Understand that each person has a role in the family with responsibilities and actions. This is something that is established in the early years of life.
  3. Strong ties with humanity are created in family. This is how we understand that we are part of a whole.
  4. In family, we learn to recognize that while others may be different, they are people with whom we share the same humanity.
  5. Fostering empathy in family helps develop another characteristic: prosocial behavior, which involves applying humanitarian behaviors to benefit others.

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