By Craig Gibbons, Jaunty Social Trainer
Sometimes I can't stand to watch a Michael Cera movie, like Juno, because his juvenile awkwardness is just so uncomfortable. Thinking about it, though, I realize that I'm uncomfortable because I can relate so much to the situations that he gets caught in. I'm empathizing with him and can feel the anxiety that awkwardness causes in the situation – almost enough to make me to want to turn off the movie. It's funny – empathy can be the cause of stress, but it's also the way we make a connection with others. By being aware of our own empathy, we can use it to connect to others and take advantage of the situation for the better.
For instance, when I was in college, I was studying in the library when a woman walked in and sat at the table behind me. She was talking loudly on the phone and being kind of obnoxious. I looked back and saw the woman, who seemed very wrapped up in her own little world. A young man was seated across from her trying to read a book. I could see an annoyed look on the guy's face before I turned back toward my own work and tried to block out the woman's talking. After a few minutes, the aggravated young man finally made a request for the woman to go outside. The woman immediately became defensive and hostile toward him. The two began to vocally fight. The young man was not handling the situation in the best way, and the woman seemed to intentionally be trying to start something.
Outside of the tension of their situation, I realized that I was feeling stressed out just having to listen. I was empathizing with the discomfort of their public argument. But then I stopped listening and turned my head to look at everyone else in the room. In the immediate area, I could see about ten people either looking directly at the scene or visibly showing anxiety from the tension. As the fight went on, all our tension went higher and higher until I couldn't take it anymore. I didn't want to feel the tension, and I didn't want anyone else to feel it either. I realized that I could do something about it, and assertively interrupted them.
I said, "Hey guys, I don't think it's your intention, but your arguing is causing us a lot of tension. What can we do about this?"
Afterwards, I could feel the release of tension among myself and all the people within earshot. I suddenly became the hero of the room. I wouldn't have known that it was affecting everyone else if I hadn't taken a second to be aware of everyone else's feelings. I could sense that the nearby students were grateful that the situation was over. Afterwards, someone sitting nearby turned and expressed their gratitude that the argument was over.
Recognizing how other people are feeling, and identifying with those feelings allows us to take action in a way that will positively affect our status. You can become the hero of conversation. You can make someone's day. You can even stop something that's negatively affecting the emotions of others. Empathy is a tool that we can use with strategy and intuition to benefit us. You may not be the best at empathizing, but you can learn. What kind of situations have you been in where you could empathize with someone else, and what could you have done to help?