Recently, there was constant reporting about a high school student and his actions while visiting Washington, D.C. Why was he in D.C.? What was he wearing? What did he do that created such an uproar that dominated the news for a week?
This was the first impression on steroids. Humans make snap judgments and size-up people and events quickly. First impressions are influenced by many factors such as clothing, facial expressions, the tone of voice, eye contact, body type and many others. Research suggests that first impressions are hard to change even when we are presented with facts that dispute our initial thoughts.
The Center for Relationship Education offers curricula that teach skills for healthy relationship development. One of the lessons is about empathy. Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference, that is, the capacity to place oneself in another’s position.
How do we teach this complex construct in the dimension of human relationship development?
We ask students to imagine there was a huge elephant in the room. The assignment is to stand around the elephant and write a paragraph about this pachyderm. Are all the paragraphs the same or even similar? No, of course not, it depends on where one is standing. One is describing the leg while another could be describing the trunk. Real empathy is not to say that you hear and even understand what people are saying about the elephant, but, rather, it is going behind that person and looking at the elephant from where they are standing and seeing what they see.
Empathy is missing from our national dialogue and in many relationships. It is a skill we must learn if we are going to connect with one another in meaningful and authentic ways. We must be willing to see someone’s point of view from their vantage point. It does not mean we have to agree, we just need to attempt to understand with empathy and kindness.
I remember a time in my life when I despondent, I heard a song that gave voice to my exact feelings. My heart leaped and I was moved to tears. How did the artist know what I was feeling at this moment in time? It touched my heart in such a profound way, I played it repeatedly. The words in the song declared, I understand you! Being understood is an amazing gift. It is what makes us human. It is called empathy. My hope is that we can all take a breath, be mindful of first impressions and the power of rushing to judgment and posting these judgments on social media. This pollutes our hearts and makes the culture uncivil, and meanspirited. Let’s slow down and get all the “paragraphs” from around the elephant in the room before we rush to judgment and make our first impression, which is very likely not accurate. For more information: email@example.com or myrelationshipcenter.org
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