Five Ways To Develop Empathy for People Suffering


Watching the people you love in pain is one of the most difficult things humans experience.  As a parent, we naturally run to our children when they are younger and cry out in pain.  We will do all in our power to make it stop (even if the child does not believe it).  When it is your spouse or significant other, you would do the same.  You sooth with hands or words. You get them whatever they want and are willing to go to whatever lengths.  

But in some cases, the limits become evident.  When the situation is life-threatening or terminal, helplessness and even hopelessness become our companion.  Most of us would never think of abandoning them but sadly, it happens.  I think there are numerous reasons which contribute so it is generally not one thing that is guaranteed to send people running away.  Of course, the opposite is true too, and while some may flee, others will draw closer to support.  The capacity to care for other people is amazing at times (of course some of things people say is rather amazing too, like these comments here.  Don’t say them...ever).

The biggest factor here is empathy, that ability we have (or don’t have) to make a personal connection with another person’s feelings.  It does not mean we know EXACTLY what it is someone is facing but it is an indication we have SOME idea of the situation and emotions.

Here are my Five Ways To Develop Empathy for People Suffering

Walking in another’s shoes.  I think this is the most significant thing which draws us closer to those who are suffering.  If we can see the world through their eyes, and see ourselves in another, we are more apt to care.

Imagination.  That may sound odd but it is similar to walking in another’s shoes.  If there is not a simple connection evident, our imagination can be put to good use.  We can imagine what suffering is like and this can draw us closer.

Reality.  Sometimes we have lived through the experience.  It is NEVER identical but when there is a common point of connection, we may be able to draw closer to those in need.   I learned after Testicular cancer and losing part of my vision, I was a better pastor in the hospital.

The Time Before That… If you had a relationship before all hell broke loose then there is a good bet, you’ll be able to share the connection and be a support.  Let me say truthfully though, if you walk away at the beginning, don’t expect to come walking back later to the same relationship.  

And the last and most important...

Ears to hear.  I have been blessed by those who have been able to make time to listen.  That matters a lot in my role as caregiver (and especially as it has come from other clergy). One friend said, “I have nothing to offer you. I’m sorry you’re going through this.”  Spot on.  Another buddy got me out hunting and just allowed me the space to be all-out redneck for the day.  Sure needed that too.  They just listened.

I think as a society we have lost some of our ability to be empathetic toward others.  It could be our desensitization to suffering brought about by the plurality of images of suffering.  We dismiss the possibility someone can know our plight because of certain factors (their not our race, our faith, our gender, our sexuality, etc.).  Our current election cycle and candidates have given rise to the idea that “if you’re voting for (insert candidate here), you can’t be my friend,” without ever giving thought to WHY this person may lean this direction in their voting.

When I first became a Prepare/Enrich Marriage Counselor, I thought it was interesting our first sessions with couples was on Active Listening.  After 22 years of being with my wife, being a parent and working with couples, I do not wonder about THAT anymore.  I wonder about how many MORE sessions I ought to have with couples and how I might need to just offer classes to everybody on becoming a good active listener.

You do not have to be clergy or a counselor to practice active listening either.  All of us need it and would benefit from it.  Take five more minutes and check out this great video on the subject:

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