Empathy is a special ingredient for building strong friendships and safe, welcoming spaces for us all to belong to. It is empathy that helps us to understand and appreciate that everyone in the room comes with their own unique life story; their own fears, gifts, experiences, and interests.
You’ve probably heard the phrase “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes” before… but what does that really mean and how does it help you to deepen your connections with people?
Let’s run with the metaphor (s’cuse the pun), just for a moment. Imagine you have a favourite pair of shoes. They fit you really well, they’re comfortable and they just make you feel confident and ready for the day! Well, let’s say that you decided to wear your neighbours shoes for the morning. You might experience something else – maybe they’re too big, or too small, for you. Maybe they’re uncomfortable, or they have a hole in the toe that lets the rain in! Come midday, you give the shoes back… and you’ve learnt something about what it’s like to be your neighbour, even just for a moment.
The same thing can happen with our thoughts, emotions and experiences. We all have our own unique way of seeing the world. When we “put ourselves in someone else’s shoes,” we try to imagine what it’s like to be in their situation, to see things from their point of view. It’s like trying on their shoes to see how they fit! 👟👠🥾
When we learn to appreciate that everyone we meet has a different perspective and life experience, we can enter into new situations with kindness, curiosity and an openness to connect without judgment. And while empathy is often associated with close friends and family, it’s also key to building deeper bonds with strangers.
A generous community member once shared this with us, in response to a question about the impact of meeting new people through the Befriend Community.
“I feel more empathy for others, I feel more human. It’s a strange thing that by meeting so many more people who are quite different to me, I somehow feel more normal. I’m much better at spotting the shared humanness I have with others now. Which makes me much less anxious about meeting new people in general!”
So, the next question you might have is… how can we be more empathetic towards strangers and use this superpower to make new connections?
Here are some practical tips that you can try the next time you’re trying to connect with someone you don’t know all too well:
1. Smile and make eye contact
A warm smile and eye contact can go a long way towards showing someone that you’re interested in what they have to say. It may seem like a small gesture but something really special can happen when we’re holding an active space for someone to share.
Research shows that our self-worth gets a little boost when we know someone is really seeing us whilst we talk.
2. Show curiosity
Curiosity is one of our core values at Befriend – and for good reason! Encouraging someone to share more about their life experiences can help them to feel seen and heard, which in turn, can have huge effects on how someone feels about an interaction. So instead of asking “have you been here before?”, try asking “what brings you here today?” and see where the conversation takes you!
3. Listen actively
Giving someone your full attention when they’re speaking is a really important part of building a connection. We often have great intentions when we’re listening, trying to identify the bits of information that you can relate or respond to with an enthusiastic “hey, me too!”, but in doing so, we can miss the little details that help connect us. Try to put away the internal chatter, and really listen. Once someone is done talking, you could try taking a moment to reflect back what you heard, or what you appreciate about their sharing.
4. Support someone
If you notice someone around you seems to be finding something challenging, you might try offering your support. This could be over something practical, like helping someone at the bus stop figure out what route to take, or it could be something more subtle, like inviting someone to take the seat next to you, because you can see they’re a bit nervous. Appreciating someone’s experience, and even relating to it on some level, can help create a sense of connection and foster empathy.
5. Be open-hearted
An open heart and a willingness to simply be present with someone without judgement helps to create a safe space for connection to flourish. Empathy opens the door to authenticity; a space we can be ourselves in the company of someone who accepts and celebrates us, for being exactly who we are.
Building new connections with strangers can feel really daunting, so it’s helpful to have different strategies in your back pocket that you can lean on during different times. Actively practicing empathy when we meet new people can be a great strategy to help us gently bring down those (all too human!) walls we tend to build around ourselves, and invite others in.
So, the next time you’re out and about or find yourself in an unfamiliar environment, challenge yourself to practice empathy towards a stranger. Dare to strike up a conversation, ask open-ended questions, really feel what it’s like to listen intently and without judgement, and show curiosity about their life and experiences… you never know where a simple act of empathy may lead you!