7 Ways to Cultivate Empathy (Especially on Social Media)

Published: Aug 25, 2016
7 Ways to Cultivate Empathy (Especially on Social Media)
More than ever, we need to learn to cultivate empathy for others. Here are 7 simple steps to help us all move toward a spirit of compassion and understanding, especially online.

I’m tired.

I’m tired of turning on the news and seeing hate followed by sadness followed by more hate.

I’m tired of then scrolling through my Twitter feed and seeing one-line zingers that pour salt on open wounds.

I’m tired of sending out my own stunted and cut-off thoughts into a world that is broken down.

It feels like we are all kicking each other as we lay on the ground, sobbing and clutching our chests that feel too much and our stomachs that are sickened by what we have endured.

My simple mind wonders, why can’t we all just be friends? Instead, I succumb my already tender spirit to reading hateful comments and jabs that contribute to the problem, not the solution. I see more and more division and less unity. I find myself taking sides, stirring up more anger in my heart and leaving what started as an information-gathering session in a state of strife.

What I really want to do is invite you over, pour you a cup of coffee, and make room for you on my old, blue couch that has too many pillows to be really comfortable. I want to toss those pillows on the ground, closing the physical distance between us, and I want to listen.

The more I say and comment and “like,” the less I read and listen and wait. All of my words are driving a wedge between us, when what I really want is to share the same space graciously.

In the wake of racial tensions, unjust deaths, mass shootings, and terrorist attacks, the internet and the air around me are filled with words that are pointing blame, attempting to decipher cause and intent, and overall, not providing anyone with a safe place to land. As I navigate through the sea of accusations and defenses, I have decided to adopt a method to process controversies and respond to those around me. I want to engage first with empathy and then follow with truth in love.

7 Ways to Cultivate Empathy (especially on Social Media)

1. First, listen. I don’t know how else to say this, except maybe, “zip your lips.” How will we know how to respond if we haven’t listened to the issue at hand? Listen fully. Don’t outline your response as you’re reading a Facebook post. Don’t dream up what you’re going to say as you’re listening to your friend vent. Don’t work on that one-lined zinger for Twitter as you scroll through your feed. Listen, and then listen again.

2. Listen to what is being said, not just how it’s being said. One of the first things that causes me to recoil back is anger. I’m an intellectual who enjoys the finer aspects of debate and disagreements. When words are fueled by anger and passion, I tend to focus on the delivery rather than the message. Take a step back and train yourself to hear what is being said despite the delivery. You don’t have to condone violence or hateful speech to listen. People aren’t perfect. People on social media aren’t perfect, and often, the Internet becomes a place to release emotions that feel too big for face-to-face interactions. Work hard to look past the megaphone and see the face and the heart behind those words you’re reading and responding to.

3. Pay attention to the delivery. I know I just said to look past this, but once you have meditated on the message, go back and look at the delivery. Was it loud? Was it repetitive? Was it timid? Was it hesitant? Was it violent? Was it impassioned? Was it crazy? The delivery will tell you a lot about the context of the message. Perhaps this person is acting crazy because their message has been falling on deaf ears. Maybe the anger is there because no one noticed the calm words and actions that preceded. Maybe the message is timid because this person has been repeatedly met with anger and abuse. Don’t miss the message for the method, but take note that the method often reveals a lot about the person’s desperation and passion and heart.

4. Put yourself in their shoes. Take a long moment and imagine what they’re feeling. Try to think of a scenario where you have experienced something similar. Sometimes we can’t put ourselves in someone else’s shoes because of gender, racial, religious, or socio-economic differences. That’s okay, but…

5. If you can’t put yourself in their shoes, admit it. This one is easy. Try this. “I can’t relate, but ______ must feel awful. I am so sorry.”

6. Tell them you’ve listened, and then show them you did by asking questions. Ask questions before you give advice (if you even need to do this at all). Validate the other person’s feelings before you share your own.

7. Hug, hold hands, sit in silence, or cry. Do this together. Look at the other person and mirror their response. Are they sad? Be sad with them. Are they angry? Voice that you are angry that something has made them angry. *Please note that I did not say you needed to be angry for the same reasons. You may disagree with this person’s anger, but be human and be gracious and acknowledge their anger and the fact that you wish they didn’t have to be that way. A virtual hug is harder to give, but words of affirmation and solidarity should do the trick.

That’s it.

No, there’s no #8. Don’t put your two cents in right now. There may come a day when you have built trust, validated the other’s feelings, and proved that you are there for the long haul. Then, if there is truth to share that needs to be shared, speak it in love, with grace, and with much thought and prayer.

As believers, we are called to speak Truth and share the love of Christ with those around us. We are called to be like Jesus. When I think about Jesus, one of my favorite places to picture Him is at the dinner table – dining with sinners, tax collectors, and disciples alike. All are seated together at the table as equals. At His feet, a prostitute pours out her heart and her life with a bottle of expensive perfume.

The next time you’re at dinner giving a lecture, let me know so I don’t show up. Breaking bread and passing wine encourages listening, laughing, commiserating, and empathy. Togetherness. Let’s make an effort to view our online and personal encounters with hard conversations like we are seated at a dinner table.

You pass me the bread and I’ll listen to your longest sadness and your greatest joy. I won’t look at you with disgust or disbelief, I’ll just pass you the wine and toast that we’re sharing a meal as friends. When your tears have dried and your anger has waned, I will share my heart with you like you’ve shared yours, and we will break bread, sip wine, and grow. Together.

And no matter what’s been said or how it’s been said, I’ll invite you back, because I want to be like Jesus.

Sarah Elizabeth Finch is a wife to Jake, mother of two children under two, and a storyteller at heart. Outside the home she works contract as a medical Speech-Language Pathologist and volunteers with Student Ministries at her church, discipling a small group of girls from sixth grade through high school. She is passionate about uncovering beautiful stories in seemingly mundane moments. Some of her life-long goals include getting an MFA, running a marathon, writing a book, and seeing her children know Jesus. Connect with her on on her website, or on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.