Developing empathy for others


Article first published in Cornwall Today as ‘Let’s get better at empathy this International Women's Day (and every day)’.

International Women's Day is a precious opportunity to see things from another perspective

Sympathy isn’t enough to keep a relationship healthy, we have to really listen if we want to understand how others think and feel.

As a man, it feels presumptuous to be writing about International Women’s Day, a campaign that exists to refocus our eyes on the experiences and achievements of women. Even this acknowledgement sounds patronising: as if making space for female voices is something to be proud of.

Instead of writing about something else, which would have been easier, I decided that the awkwardness I was experiencing was interesting in itself. I had to admit that the discomfort came from the knowledge that I can’t really know what it feels like to be a woman. To me, female is other, and anything ‘other’ always makes us feel a little anxious.

In 2019 we’re finally getting used to the idea that gender is not binary and I’ve made a conscious decision recently to shift my own language from “opposite sex”, which seems to set people against one another, to “other genders”, which may not be perfect but at least allows for greater diversity.

So how can we better understand the people we care about and reach a more peaceful place where difference doesn’t cause us anxiety? This year’s theme, #BetterforBalance

offers a great answer to that question, reminding us that equality is not a woman’s issue but a human rights issue. We’re often reminded that equal does not have to mean the same, but it does require balance.

Sympathy is an easy and unequal emotion. It’s very easy to say “I’m sorry to hear that”. Hearing isn’t enough to truly feel anything, we have to listen to step into someone else’s shoes, get a precious glimpse of the world through their eyes and feel what they feel. Empathy is challenging, but rewarding because it restores equality and balance to our relationships.

The way I see it, my job on International Women’s Day is to listen. Not to assume that I know what women need but to be open to hearing what they really do need, even if that challenges my beliefs. My role is to support, to be aware that things may be different for other genders and to accept that.

At Lifetime, we recognise that mental health can be nurtured by empathy and provide groups for men and women. In the safety of a well-guided group, we can explore emotions, relationships and beliefs, helping us become different partners and friends. We can move to a more empathic and compassionate way of being and experience the benefits of this growth in our lives and relationships.

Malachy Dunne

Find out more about group therapies.