I’ve been thinking a lot about empathy lately, and I’d like to share a few thoughts on the subject.

The Dictionary.com definition of empathy is “the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.”

Last week, I accepted the challenge of caring for my 13-month-old Godson while his parents were traveling on business. I was an unexpected ask for all of us, but I thought it was a good opportunity for me to bond with the little guy and help them out in the process.

Suffice it to say that I had no idea what I was in for when I agreed to do it. Not that it would have changed my willingness to help. To the contrary, I’m grateful for the opportunity to learn about a side of humanity that I have never experienced. And yes, it is very different than anything I could have imagined.

I will never look at a parent pushing a baby stroller while walking a dog the same way again. In fact, I don’t think I’ll ever look at parents in general the same way again. The level of respect that I have for them has gone through the roof after this experience.

Taking care of a toddler for a week has a way of putting things into perspective quickly. Just like putting ourselves into the shoes of others in vastly different situations than we experience in our lives can as well. When faced with the pressures of these situations, a whole different way of looking at the world has a chance to emerge.

Brandon Sutton and Daryl ArnoldSeveral close friends are in research and cultural anthropology, and they often share the methodology they use to get into the minds and hearts of the people they are studying. Often, this requires immersion into the environments of the subjects so that they can see firsthand how they go about their day and experience the environmental factors that they deal with day in and day out.

How many of us really do this in our lives though? How often do we truly push ourselves way beyond our comfort zones and experience things that others are experiencing every day.

When we are tempted to pass judgement on someone because of something they have done that we perceive as wrong or inconsiderate, do we really know what is going on with that other person?

Could we benefit from zooming out when we get caught up in frustrations in the moment and practice empathy for other people when we are tempted to focus exclusively on our own needs and desires? Can we identify with the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of others before jumping to conclusions and casting judgement?

This isn’t just personal, by the way. There is a place for this type of practice in business as well. Marketers can peek into the lives of their customers so that they are providing products and services that truly benefit those on the receiving end.

Managers can take the time to not only get to know their staff better, but also tag along with them from time to time to see and hear what their jobs are really like every day.

On paper, these may seem straightforward, but the actual dynamics of these experiences include outside influences that are not easy to sum up in a report or a job description. The totality of factors that come together in a person’s life impacts the way they see, hear and experience the world. Thoughtful leaders and marketers take this into account and develop methods for staying connected with the people who they are leading or marketing to so they are better attuned to what is really going on in their lives.

Television, movies, music, books, articles, etc. all provide us with information – a perspective. We are influenced by what we see, hear, read, etc., and these can be powerful ways of communicating ideas, hopes, dreams, concerns, crises, etc. But what if on occasion, instead of relying exclusively on these things to inform our world view, we decided to go see for ourselves how reality matches up with what we are seeing, hearing, and reading? How might this experience help us develop empathy for others whose lives are very different than ours? Have you ever thought about this?

Two outstanding resources come to mind that I wanted to share. One is an article that I ran across a couple of weeks back that totally floored me: That truck driver you flipped off? Let me tell you his story. If you drive a car, ever, this is a must-read article.

And the other is a video by Derek Sivers, A real person, a lot like you that does a fantastic job of illustrating how online interactions can be easily misconstrued, causing unintended negative consequences for other people, just like us.

Please take a time-out of your day for just a few minutes and do me a favor. Read the article about the trucker and watch the video from Derek. When you’re done, please leave a comment here describing how this might apply to something you are going through in your own life.

Today, I’m grateful for these reminders that I have no idea what’s going on in the worlds of most of the people I interact with every day, yet I can practice empathy for others and adjust how I react in any given situation. This is a valuable lesson, and I’m making a concerted effort to develop this habit as I go through life.

Are you with me?

Photo: Brandon and Katrina Survivor Daryl Arnold by Terrell Clark