It’s easy to find yourself watching the actions of another person and ask, “Why would they do that?”

If it’s something you disagree with, the easiest conclusion to come to is that a person is acting intentionally bad.  You think they are making the wrong choice.

But with some critical thought, we know that is just not true. Why would somebody intentionally make a bad decision?

Learning to be empathetic to other people is a great way to improve your relationships and understand the world better.

Everyone Makes THEIR Best Choice

By the nature of us acting on a choice, it means that at that very moment, we decided it was the best option to make.

It’s not to say that we might not regret an action at a later date. Or that had we had additional information we may have acted differently. But in that moment, when we acted, that was what we thought was the best course of action.

And this is the key to empathy – everybody thinks they are making the best choice. Nobody would intentionally act in a way that would go against what they believe is the best course of action.

Not All Choices Are Good

The big asterisks here is that people can make logically bad choices. The study of ethics is centered around the idea of creating systems of thinking, values, morals, that can be used to judge actions on. If you subscribe to certain philosophical beliefs, you can in theory, judge choices.

The problem of course is that not all people subscribe to the same moral code. So what you value as morally or ethically important, may not be true for somebody else.

On an extreme example, you have cases of things like murder or genocide. Where the people acting on killing innocent people are doing so because they believe it is the right thing to do (given their position).

On a less extreme example, you may have friends or family members who are over-consuming material items, being bad with their health, or simply just assholes.

In all of these cases, knowing that people are always trying to make their best choice, we can assume that the person is not intentionally trying to act bad, but they just have different values than you.

Being Empathetic

Yes, you can make arguments that your system of thinking or moral standards are better than other peoples. That is the basis for the study of ethics. However, it’s important to bring empathy back into the picture.

Being empathetic means learning how their values and circumstance made them take an action. By learning to view all people’s actions as intentional, and as their best choice, you can assume that they are indeed not “bad people”, but maybe their values differ from yours.

We are not all the same. You may hold some ethical beliefs to be true, while others don’t. Or you may have one set of life experiences, while another person has their own.

Empathy to Action

Having empathy for somebody, and trying to understand their actions does not mean you need to be okay with or endorse their behavior. In cases where you have a strong disagreement, it’s okay to take action.

If you catch yourself asking, “Why would they do that?” AND feel strongly about helping them with their decision, you can start a dialogue:

  1. Start with Empathy. Remember they are not intentionally being bad. They are acting this way because they believe it’s their best option.
  2. Ask them why? Have them explain to you their reasoning, to help you better understand their position.
  3. Gently Shift Perspective. If you have insight or a worldview that could help them grow their understanding, gently introduce it to them. Don’t shame them for not knowing, but allow them to walk with you.
  4. Accept the Response. Your guidance might help, or it might not. Maybe you will actually be convinced of their viewpoint! Either way, accept that people are different and your views on the world can be too.

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