10 tips to increase your empathy
"There is an empathy deficit in the world. More people are living alone and we are putting less time into social and community activities that enhance our empathic sensitivity. This is worrisome because empathy not only makes you a good person - it's also good for you: if you care more about others, you're more likely to be happy," said economist Richard Layard (Krznaric, 2015). Empathy also has the ability to mend broken relationships, deepen friendships and create new ones. And it improves your creative thinking, as empathy helps you see problems and perspectives from another's eyes.
For ten years, Roman Krznaric researched empathy from experimental psychology to social history, anthropology to literary studies, political science to brain science. About this, he wrote the book Empathy. We were inspired by this book and wrote 10 tips to help you expand your empathic potential.
But first: what is empathy anyway?
Empathy is the art of putting yourself in other people's thoughts, understanding their feelings and viewpoints, and acting on them.
So it is not the same as an expression of sympathy. Treating others as you would like to be treated is not applicable. In doing so, you are not taking the other person's feelings and thoughts into account at all, only your own. Empathy is about discovering the preferences of the other person: treating them as they would like to be treated.
The 10 tips
1: Stimulate your empathic brain
Growing amounts of neuroscience research show that with "compassion training" you can make changes in the neural configuration of certain brain areas. This in turn can lead to increasing your capacity for empathy and an increase in pro-social behavior.
Compassion training is based on Buddhist meditation techniques. For example, consider exercises where you sit in silence and mentally focus attention and positive feelings on yourself, then a loved one, then a neutral person, then a person with whom you have problems, and finally all people. The result is that brain activity increases in areas associated with social connectedness.
2: Behave like an empathy detective
Be aware of phenomena of empathic thinking or acting that you observe in yourself or in others. Who knows, you may notice that your boss manages to understand someone else's point of view or you may see a form of empathic cooperation in your children. Over time, based on your observations, you will build an image of humanity that is directly opposed to the dominant cultural message: namely, that we are purely selfish beings pursuing our own individualistic goals. The more we search for empathy with our social feelers, the more aware we become of the context in which empathy occurs in ourselves and others.
3: Know the barriers to empathy
There are four barriers that get in the way of us being empathetic, namely:
The vast majority of us have biases about others. We tend to think in stereotypes and make judgments based on first impressions when we barely know anything about the other person. This makes it difficult to appreciate their humanity or the personal stories behind their circumstances. Take, for example, the idea that truck drivers are "undeveloped," or that you take people who speak dialect less seriously.
Another barrier is the tendency to obey authority. 'I only follow orders' is a common excuse by people who have been guilty of massacres, genocide, and other misdeeds. We too easily do what we are ordered to do, no matter what it entails and without remorse of conscience, as long as we think the order comes from a lawful authority. This is not innate but to a large extent contextual and cultural. We learn it at an early age from our parents and teachers and grow up thinking that we are obligated to "obey the law" and "follow the rules. Our tip: keep thinking, and have the will and ability to defy authority when empathetic action demands it.
Both spatial distance and distance in the time limit the spread of empathy. We find it difficult to care about people we do not know, whose lives are far away, with whom we are not familiar, or who will not be born until the distant future. We face the challenge of reducing this distance by empathizing in our imaginations with those who are distant from us in time and space.
We live in a culture of denial: we know about atrocities and suffering, but put it away and do nothing. The information we receive is too disturbing, threatening, or abnormal to fully absorb or openly acknowledge. Perhaps we feel too much shame or guilt. Try to change that by being aware that we seek refuge in denial and instead feel moral responsibility.
Empathizing begins with looking others in the eye, giving them a name, and recognizing their individuality. It involves recognizing their humanity despite prejudice and stereotyping. This human approach to an individual helps us empathize with a larger circle of people.
Tip: dwell on people who relate to what you do on a daily basis. For example, an exercise from Buddhism is to imagine for a day every person who is related to what you do every day. For example, in the morning when you get up, think of those who sowed, picked, and spun the cotton of your sheets, and those who gathered, processed and exported the beans for your morning coffee. You enjoy their product so you bear responsibility for them, especially if they have worked in poor conditions. Realize the role they play in your daily life
5: Be a good listener
Highly empathetic people are good listeners. Do not be afraid to bring up a sensitive subject, but do it in the right way. For example, by making yourself vulnerable and by being open about your own experiences and feelings. This turns a conversation into a real two-way dialogue. Leave your own judgments, advice, and ideas for what they are, and instead ask questions when you don't understand something. By asking questions you also prevent filling in things for someone else. In short, be genuinely curious.
6: Play character games
Another way to excite your empathy is to play character games. Suppose you're at a convention and meet a seemingly emotionless, tough businessman - a person with whom you initially have nothing. The game is simply to imagine him in a different, more human guise. For example, when he is playing hide-and-seek with his three-year-old son or singing a song to cheer up his elderly mother.
7: Be critical of your own assumptions
Ask yourself some sharp questions about the assumptions you hold about others. The purpose of this is to increase your self-awareness and determine what prejudices are hiding in your mind:
- What assumptions do people have you think about the kind of person you are? How correct are they?
- Think of three instances when you had wrong assumptions and judgments about others. What were the consequences of your mistake, and why did it matter?
- How often do you make assumptions and about what kinds of people?
Bringing to light that we are wrong is one of the fastest forms of empathic education.
8: Treat others the way they want you to treat them
In the introduction to this article, we already touched upon the golden rule: 'treat others as you would want to be treated by them'. This is a fine principle if our emotional lives and experiences coincide with those of other people, but the moment you have a different worldview and cultural background, the golden rule fails. The result can be that we treat people in ways that we ourselves think are appropriate, but from their perspective are not at all. Therefore, it is better to turn to the platinum rule: "Treat others as they would like you to treat them.
9: Understand what you don't share with another person
We should not simply assume that others share our moral codes, preferences, and interpretations of the world. This is why high-empathy people do not simply seek to discover what they share with others, but also actively seek to understand what they do not share. And to gain an understanding of another's worldview without agreeing with another's beliefs and principles. This gets to the heart of making the imaginative leap into another's mind. In the book Empathy, Roman Krznaric mentions several ways to do this:
You can physically immerse yourself in another's situation by seeking out the same physical conditions. For example, empathize with someone in a wheelchair by spending some time in a wheelchair yourself. Or go to a museum where you experience what it is like to go through life as blind or visually impaired. Other ideas include participating in fundraisers for the homeless where you live outside on the street for a night. Or try to live on minimum wage or the equivalent of unemployment benefits for a month.
Establish yourself as an anthropologist exploring lives and cultures and observing how they differ from our own. Krznaric calls this "undertaking empathic journeys. Engage in conversation with people you meet on your travels, be curious, and ask about things you don't yet know or understand.
Connect empathically with others by cooperating with them. For example, find a (volunteer) project, think of teaching English to children, or organizing outings for people with disabilities. In this way, you work with others, share experiences, and broaden your worldview.
10: Never forget to laugh
Being more empathetic and understanding of each other makes the world a much nicer place. Use these tips to be more open to people who are different from you, be aware of what empathy is and how empathy expresses itself, and use it to improve relationships with those around you. Then the fun will come naturally!