The back view of two men leaning their heads on each others. overlay of a lined drawing of a brain over the left man and part of his brain swirls spilling into and filling part of the right man's empty brain.


Do you go out of your way to help people, only to find that they are upset or disappointed? If so, you are not alone. Even the best of intentions may not end with the result we hope. In today’s article, we’ll discuss what’s really going on in these sometimes baffling and frustrating situations. Warning: the information contained in this article, if applied, may increase patience, peace and joy in your life and the lives of others. It may, however, also be what you do not want to hear.

Let’s start with a story.

I used to be a ballroom dance instructor. Seeing new couples enter the studio was such a joy—their faces hopeful, excited and a little bit scared of being out of their comfort zone as they anticipated something new. As I introduced myself and learned a little about them, I would ask, “What’s your goal in learning to dance?” Most women said, to have fun doing something with (their) man. Most men said, to see their woman having fun and not step on her toes.

As a teacher, it was my goal that the woman and man both felt successful. Succeeding at the first goal—having fun, was usually very easy. I would play the lady’s favorite songs and teach the man to give her a few twirls. And off they went into a “happyland.” Succeeding at the second goal, however, took training and practice.

I taught two methods for men to avoid tripping over and stepping on the woman’s toes. The first was showing them what it was like to follow—to be in the woman’s shoes and be led. Once the men knew how it felt to anticipate when someone would step on his feet and then the danger of actually being STEPPED ON (which basically makes a person an immovable target to be toppled upon), his perspective changed. This EXPERIENCE taught him the life-and-death importance of understanding his partner’s perspective. He could now relate to how SHE felt. Then, I would ask him to truly put himself in her shoes. I’d say, “imagine you are 5 feet tall … standing in high heels … and wearing a dress that may not allow you to move quickly or get out of the way”.

This, is empathy.

In this situation, having empathy for the woman means knowing all of her circumstances and how vulnerable and potentially painful, life-threatening and not fun it can be for her to follow a man who does not know how to lead her safely and with empathy and joy.

What is empathy exactly?

As Wikipedia states, Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within in their frame of reference, i.e., the capacity to place oneself in another’s position.”

Let’s also state what empathy is not. Being an empath and having empathy are not the same. An empath has the ability to feel other people’s feelings—intuitively, physically, emotionally or all three. A person who has empathy has the ability to discern WHY people think, feel and act as they do, based on intuition, curiousity and/or study of that person’s past.

Empathy wins

As GI Joe says, “knowing is half the battle”. When we know why a person is as they are, we can better show them love, kindness, generosity, etc. It also helps us “win” the “battle” of being a good partner, lover, mother, son, or whatever role we choose. For us to influence (or win over) other people, we must be open to learn what influences them, and choose actions from there.

Empathy is vital

Empathy is the vital ingredient to both winning and successfully side-stepping other’s toes, issues, agendas, problems and dogmas. For example, it helps us understand that a woman’s tears of joy after receiving a marriage proposal are BECAUSE she fears that she will never be loved. Empathy helps us understand the rage that a man has at the person who cut in front of him BECAUSE he has felt second-best since 3rd grade when his teacher played favorites and he weren’t one. Empathy helps us understand the spouse that says “no one cares about me,” when he or she is served a dinner plate by his or her loved one that has an item they don’t like BECAUSE they are afraid that their spouse doesn’t care about their happiness.

When we have empathy, we recognize that we need to treat people differently so that THEY feel understood and loved. Empathy allows us to care for people in a better way. For example, if we wish to show our gratitude to different people for their job well done, we can empathically know that one person will feel honored to receive a hug and reply “thank you,” while another person would feel uncomfortable and pull away, and yet another person prefers public praise. Knowing this allows us to treat each person as he or she wishes to be treated. This makes them feel connected to us, and in return, they enjoy our relationship and like us and like being with us more.

People like to get it

It may seem obvious from the examples, but people like people who have empathy for them. It makes them feel understood, treated as they wish, and even loved. As the Myers-Briggs personality assessments suggest and as Emotional Intelligence quizzes profess, people with strong scores in empathy also score higher in areas of confidence, popularity, success and have a greater sense of control over their destiny and happiness.

Empathy cures

If we’re not being received as we intended, “disappointing people,” or just not getting the results we want from our relationships, growing in empathy can cure what ails. It can’t hurt to try it and we can only grow in our understanding our truth and the truth of others. Although we may think we know what other people want, if this was true, the results of our giving would probably reflect as such. If our world, families and business associates suggest that they do not get what they want, or that their relations with us aren’t reciprocal, cultivating empathy could be considered.

Cultivating Empathy—Self First

The easiest way to begin to have empathy for others is to begin cultivating empathy for ourselves. We can learn more about our own needs. Do we know WHY we do things for others? Is it for them, or do we need attention, appreciation, fear losing them or wish to escape the “not good enough” feeling? These are selfish reasons that do not take into account what the recipient of our actions actually needs, wants or feels. If we need more attention from others, we can get exponentially more attention by becoming empathetic and applying that knowledge. Who wouldn’t want to be around us and grateful for us if we understand them and know how to give them what they want?

We can begin by empathizing with our own need for attention, and give that need the respect and attention that IT DESERVES. We can begin by giving ourselves the attention we seek and quit putting that burden on others. This alone will make us lighter and more enjoyable to be with. We can also do more things that we are proud of, so we can notice ourselves as good and worthy people who deserve attention. Rewarding ourselves with healthy choices that promote our goals and dreams. We can notice when we feel tired, stressed, hungry or have to go to the loo, and take care of ourselves immediately—the way we would care for our dearest love or child. We just need to begin.

So how do we become more empathetic?

1) Instead of criticizing others for being unappreciative of us, we can BECOME CURIOUS about the inner-workings of ourselves and others.  And learn WHY we think, feel and do as we do. Although this can be challenging, it is most certainly possible, and the second-most rewarding thing I have ever done, aside from seeking God. To become curious, we need to choose to want to invest our energy and learn. This requires dropping any:
a. fear we may have of knowing the answer
b. fear that we are incapable of knowing the answer
c. arrogance that people should think, feel and do as we wish
d. arrogance that we are too busy to bother spending time trying to understand someone
e. poor-me-self-pity

The two most effective methods to becoming curious and learning are:

2) ASK. The easiest way to get to know people better is to ask them questions.  Asking in a caring and loving way. Keep in mind that it takes confidence to receive questions, reflect on them and answer with depth. Some people may be offended by being asked questions if they believe they are “supposed to” have all the answers, and the truth is—they don’t know the answer. When we ask these people a question for which they have no answer, they may lie, get flustered or angry. In this case, we can apologize and remind them that we care. Enjoy getting to know them better and revert to observing them. A simple statement such as, “That’s fascinating. What makes (or inspires) you (to) think, feel or do that?” will often create a platform for open conversation. Another question might be, “What is your goal in this?”

3) OBSERVE. Like a mother watches her three-year-old at a party and a keen hunter observes nature, observe and anticipate the thoughts, feelings and behaviors of the people around you. To be a good observer, we must also check out of our own personal thoughts and feelings about the person, the issue and their choices. In other words, we need to be non-judgmental and simply observe without creating any story about it. This means we can’t criticize or take anything personally.

Putting it all together

Regardless what situation we are in, when we take the time to get curious and know why people feel and think and do as they do, we can satisfy them more of the time, and the experience of life will be a dance–and more fun for everyone.

Will You?

I challenge and encourage you. How can you increase your empathy by becoming curious about someone who seems dissatisfied with you, or that person that you just plain “don’t get?” (even if this person may be yourself!) Will you? Please share your thoughts and feelings so we may grow in strength, connection and truth together …

Always with love,

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