When Good Intentions Aren’t Enough

Couple on park bench looking troubled - illustration by Ouch.pics
illustration by Ouch.pics

We all want to be more empathetic, especially with those we love.  Despite these good intentions, it’s very easy to fall short.  Here’s why: 

We generally know that being empathetic means putting ourselves in the shoes of others.  We assume we can do that with those we love because of our familiarity with their thoughts and feelings.  Unfortunately, we are often wrong. 

Nicholas Epley, one of the co-authors of a study on the difference between perspective taking (assuming know what the other person is experiencing) and perspective getting (asking the other person to describe their feelings), gave this example, which involved his wife, who often expressed her love for dolphins. As a Christmas present, he gave her a day with an animal handler at an aquarium.  His wife returned the gift, for a very good reason. 

She had recently given birth and “was in no need to squeeze into a wet suit and hold stinky fish while exhausted from lack of sleep.”  Epley engaged in “perspective taking.”  Instead of “taking” the other person’s perspective (which involved a series of flawed assumptions), here’s what he should have done:  Ask her.  If he had done that, he would not have made that mistake.   

If you want to understand the feelings of someone else, make no assumptions. 

Ask them.

Only then can you be really empathetic.