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Going further: from sympathy to empathy

Updated: Jul 14, 2019

When we think about how we should treat others, we often bring to mind 'the golden rule' - to treat others as we would want to be treated. This is based on good intentions, but if we consider what this means, we can see that it matters how you interpret it.

Imagine that you are worried about a test you have tomorrow, and that you are the sort of person who studies best with a friend. Now imagine that your roommate is the sort of person who studies best alone. If she treated you as she would like to be treated, and left you to revise alone, she would not be treating you how you would like to be treated, even though she intended to do just that.

While there is a lot that we can learn from putting ourselves in another's shoes, doing this alone is not actually empathising, but sympathising. If we only put the other person's shoes on, we can see the situation from where they're standing, but we are still seeing it with our eyes. If we want to truly understand others, we need to go further, and see through their eyes. This is real empathy.

When we empathise with another person, we are not asking ourselves "How would it feel if I were in that situation?"; we are asking "How would it feel to be the other person in that situation?" The critical difference is that when we sympathise we imagine ourselves in another's situation, but we retain our perspective, our experiences, our biases. When we empathise we set ourselves aside for a moment and prioritise the other person, so that we are able to see the world as they do, and truly understand their perspective. This is how we get closer to real understanding of one another.

So maybe we should change the golden rule to

"treat others as they would like to be treated".

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