The Path to Empathy
Posted June 30, 2020 in Psychology Today
“Treat others as you’d like to be treated” is a phrase most people were taught at an early age. This timeless maxim, famously known as the ‘Golden Rule,’ is based upon a foundation of mutual respect and perspective-swapping. Meant to bring insight to our interactions with others, this principle is a robust introduction to the concept of empathy. Simply defined, empathy is the capacity to feel, share, or understand another person’s emotions or perspectives. It allows us to make connections on a deeper emotional level by learning about people’s experiences, histories, feelings, and views – bringing awareness and acceptance into situations where it may be lacking. In other words, it’s a hypothetical walk in a pair of shoes that isn’t our own.
Individuals who lack empathy aren’t able to make this journey in foreign footwear due to their insensitive, distrusting, self-absorbed, and socially isolated nature. On the other hand, an empathic person is viewed as caring, compassionate, warm, trustworthy, engaging, and helpful…
…which is what the world could use more of right now.
During this current era of social tensions, racial injustices, and pandemic politics, it seems as if we’re embracing the former mentality – tossing empathy in the corner like dirty laundry. Many people have become numb, disinterested, even aggressive towards others, both face to face and virtually. We’re losing our sense of altruism and goodwill towards humanity.
Thankfully, research suggests that empathy is partly innate and partly learned. While we’re all born with varying amounts of empathy, the ability to train ourselves to become compassionate and understanding is also inherent.
Here are four ways to cultivate more empathy in your life (and the world):
1. Give your undivided attention. Listen intently to what someone is saying and how they’re saying it. Try blocking out the “noise” in your head; our own biases, thoughts, and viewpoints can be distracting. Avoid looking at your phone and maintain eye contact throughout your time together. Once they’ve finished sharing, it’s important to be vulnerable by also sharing your feelings and beliefs, as this builds trust.
2. Be respectfully curious. Inquisitive individuals tend to ask a lot of questions because they want to understand them. When we approach people with a curious mindset, we’re opening ourselves up to new information, differing worldviews, and infinite opportunities. To be clear, this isn’t suggesting to go around interrogating others; instead, ask thoughtful and introspective questions that reflect a genuine interest in hearing their responses.
3. Challenge yourself and your own biases. This tip is two-fold. First, to challenge yourself, you’ll need to venture outside of your comfort zone. You can build humility (a vital element of empathy) by learning how to play a musical instrument, speak a foreign language, or paint with watercolors, for example. To challenge your own biases means to dispute the assumptions your brain makes almost automatically. Rather than focusing on the perceived differences, explore the commonalities you share with other people, as well as what you could learn from them.
4. Take a stroll in their shoes. Probably the most direct route to strengthening our empathic muscle is to try out another person’s life, even for a short while. Attending spiritual services different from your own belief system or wearing a blindfold to feel what it’s like to be blind
are a couple of ways to experience the everyday existence of others. Once we’re exposed to their perspective, we’re better able to understand and appreciate them as human beings.
It’s important to remember that there’s not a singular, “right” way to express empathy; it is subjective and wholly dependent upon the situation, the other person, and their emotions. When we adopt an empathic lifestyle, we become less critical and more loving, not only of others, but of ourselves, too.