5 Ways to grow your Empathy.
BY ROMAN KRZARNIC
Empathy – the imaginative act of stepping into the shoes of another person and looking at the world from their perspective – is a more popular concept today than at any point in human history.
Empathy – the imaginative act of stepping into the shoes of another person and looking at the world from their perspective – is a more popular concept today than at any point in human history. It’s on the lips of everyone from the Dalai Lama to agony aunts, from business leaders to happiness gurus. And it’s no surprise, since in the last decade neuroscientists have discovered that 98% of us have empathy wired into our brains: we are homo empathicus. Our selfish inner drives exist alongside a more cooperative, empathic self that seeks out human connection.
But do we actually need more empathy in our lives? I am convinced that we do. In part this is because of a growing global empathy deficit. In the United States, for instance, empathy levels have dropped nearly 50% over the past 40 years, with the steepest drop occurring in the last decade. It’s also because our current efforts to achieve human happiness are failing us. The headlong pursuit of high-consumption material lifestyles has left us hungry for more meaning in our lives. Job dissatisfaction is at record levels of around 60%. One in four people say there are lonely, and the same proportion will suffer a mental health problem at some point in their lives. This could hardly be described as a happy state of affairs.
We urgently need an antidote – and that antidote is empathy. But this leaves a question: how do we expand our empathic potential and bring the circuitry in our brains to life? My new book, Empathy: A Handbook for Revolution, aims to provide the answers, showing how empathy has the power to transform our relationships, from the personal to the political. So here are five ideas from the book for boosting your empathy quotient.
1.Practise empathic listening
We all know, instinctively, that empathy is a great tool for maintaining healthy relationships. Just think of all those times you’ve been arguing with your partner and thought, ‘I wish he could see my point of view!’ or ‘Why can’t she understand what I’m feeling?’ What are you asking for? Empathy of course. You want them to step into your shoes, if only for a moment. That’s why it’s worth practising empathic listening. How do you do it? Next time things are getting tense with your partner, simply focus intently on listening to their feelings and needs – without interrupting (and this might just induce them to return the favour). You might even ask them to tell you about their feelings and needs. It’s amazing how doing this can prevent niggling annoyance turn into serious resentment or full-scale arguments. Ultimately, most of us just want to be listened to and understood.
2.Get curious about strangers
We need to take empathy out of the house and onto the streets by nurturing our curiosity about strangers. I recommend having a conversation with a stranger at least once a week. Make sure you get beyond everyday chatter about the weather and talk about the stuff that really matters in life – love, death, politics, religion. You might strike up a discussion with one of the cleaners at the office, or the woman who sells you bread each morning. It’s surprising how fascinating, energising and enlightening it can be to talk to someone different from yourself. Conversations with strangers can really help challenge our assumptions and prejudices about people, so we get beyond our snaps judgements about them based on their appearance or accent. And you never know – you might even make a new friend.
3.Try an experiential adventure
Back in the 1920s the writer George Orwell – who had a very privileged background and went to Eton – decided to rough it on the streets of East London, dressing up as a tramp and spending his time with beggars, unemployed labourers and homeless people. It was an experience that totally blew his mind, shifted his priorities in life and expanded his moral universe, as he revealed in his book Down and Out in Paris in London. We can all try out similar experiential empathic adventures. Maybe you could sign up to sleep rough for a night as part of a charity appeal for your local homeless shelter. Or if you are a strong believer in a particular religion, try a ‘God swap’ and spend a month going to the services of other faiths (and maybe a Humanist meeting too). Next time you are planning a holiday, don’t ask yourself, ‘Where can I go next?’ but instead ‘Whose shoes can I stand in next?’
4.Become a revolutionary
Empathy isn’t just something that happens between individuals. It can also flower on a mass scale and start shifting the contours of society itself, creating a revolution of human relationships. Many of those who took part in the Occupy Movement and Arab Spring were motivated by empathy – empathy for those whose lives had been ravaged by the financial crisis, or who had suffered police brutality. An important way to boost your empathy levels is to join with others to take action on empathy-related issues that matter to you – whether it’s child poverty or the fate of future generations whose lives will be affected by our addiction to high-carbon lifestyles. Even taking part in your local choir or playing five-a-side football are ways to engage in communal activities that break down the barriers between people and promote a more empathic world.
5.Travel in your armchair
If all of this is sounding a bit strenuous, you can always throw a little ‘armchair empathy’ into the mix. This is about reading books and watching films that catapult our imaginations into other people’s lives that are vastly different from our own. Think of a movie like City of God, which reveals the violent world of two boys growing up in the shantytowns of Rio. Or the novel To Kill a Mockingbird, with its classic line, ‘You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view—until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.’ It isn’t always easy to find the most inspiring and powerful empathy books and films, which is why – alongside my new book – I’ve just founded the world’s first online Empathy Library. You’ll find the very best novels, non-fiction, kids’ books, feature films and video shorts all about empathy. You can also join up to add your own favourite items, and browse Top Ten Charts to give you new ideas for reading groups.
How about you?
Who in your life do you need to develop more empathy with – and how might you go about doing it?
M O R E
E M P A T H Y
S T O R I E S