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The power of empathy

Updated: Jul 14, 2019

What can we learn by putting ourselves in another's shoes?


A man in a car overtakes you on a motorway and speeds off. You are annoyed, and immediately think of him pejoratively as 'the sort of person who overtakes'. You use what you think about 'overtakers' to fill in the all the unknowns about this driver, and imagine his entire character to be a reckless, aggressive, and selfish. You mutter to yourself that he probably does anti-social things like this all the time and in all types of situations: it seems obvious to you that he is just that type of person.

But then!

Imagine you notice that, coincidentally, the car he is driving is the same model that you had owned at one time, and this prompts you to remember the day you sped in it to the hospital to be with your wife in labour. You don't think of yourself as reckless, aggressive, or selfish , and yet you enacted the exact same behaviour that you are now using to judge this man's entire character. Fleetingly you interpret the man who overtook you with the fuller lens you use on yourself, and you contemplate that he may in fact have a good reason for his action: he may be speeding to celebrate a life-changing moment like you were, or even to condole someone in their hour of need. You realise that his overtaking is probably not be the result of him being 'that type of person', so much as the result of his reacting to his situation.

By putting yourself in the other driver's shoes, you are able to reinterpret the entire interaction. You see that the driver is just another person, as complicated and reactive to his situation as you. You no longer feel annoyed. Now you actually feel compassion towards him, and hope that he is speeding towards something good.

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