Empathy is critical for our social and emotional well-being. It helps us maintain strong relationships, appropriately react to the plight of others, and build mutually beneficial societies. It allows us to recognize and understand the feelings of others. It can be divided into two categories: affective and cognitive empathy.
Affective empathy is our ability to feel the emotions of others. Ex. seeing someone hurting causes a palpable feeling of discomfort within us. Cognitive empathy is the ability to comprehend others’ inner worlds (having a good sense of someone’s thoughts and feelings).
Research indicates that we may be hardwired for empathy. However, the capacity for empathy may vary by person. It may also be regulated by social context and upbringing. Thankfully, there are measures we can take to increase empathy on our own.
How to Be More Empathetic
Challenging our own prejudice requires a degree of self-honesty that can be extremely uncomfortable. We may feel guilty for our biased beliefs about certain groups of people. This may lead us to deny our thoughts or project them (as anger, blame, etc.) onto those same people.
But living empathetically requires us to confront harmful beliefs, no matter how difficult. Ex., if we believe all people of a certain race act a specific way, we can say to ourselves, “Okay, I accept that I have these thoughts, and that they provoke shame.” Sit with the discomfort without trying to change it.
Once we accept our biases, we can begin to question their accuracy. Each time a prejudice thought arises, we can ask ourselves, “Is that true? Am I being fair?”
We can make efforts to spend time with people we hold biases about. This is a great way to humanize people. We can respectfully ask questions, observe customs, and make inquiries rather than assumptions. Curiosity allows us to accept others openly and be empathetic to their experiences.
Exposure helps us combat the misbelief that all people of a specific group are identical. Ex., if we hold negative views about followers of a particular faith, we can attend one of their religious services. If we are skeptical of newcomers to our country, we can join community programs that facilitate interaction.
When we spend time with others, we are bound to discover basic commonalities. We all need love, have goals, and have experienced hardship. To quote The Doors, “people are strange, when you’re a stranger.” With exposure, we learn to celebrate diversity rather than fear it.
Be Willing to Listen
No one knows a person’s lived experiences better than they do. It can be tempting to deny someone else’s reality, particularly if we can’t relate to it. Like owning up to our internal biases, hearing about another person’s experiences may provoke guilt.
If someone has struggled or experienced injustice, it may be painful or unsettling to us. We may try to dismiss them to avoid our own discomfort. This may be particularly true if someone has faced adversity because of systems that have benefitted us (race, socioeconomic status, etc.).
But, when we truly listen and try to understand the speaker ‘s emotions and perspective, our empathy increases. To do this, we can employ active listening techniques:
- Use body language to convey listening (eye contact, nodding, etc.).
- Be patient. Allow natural silences (this gives us time to process information and creates space for the speaker to elaborate, if needed.).
- Regulate personal emotions. We may have feelings about the speaker’s situation, but we shouldn’t inject them into the conversation. This makes the situation about us rather than trying to understand the speaker.
- Use verbal cues to convey listening (“I hear you.” etc.).
- Be non-judgemental and neutral.
- Ask clarifying questions.
- Paraphrase. This is used to confirm that we’re understanding, and let the speaker know we’re listening (Ex. if someone tells us they’re stressed by their workload, we can say, “It sounds like you’ve got a lot on your plate and it’s overwhelming.”).
Empathize with Adversaries
Let’s face it, it’s hard to accept the opinions of others when they vastly oppose our own. Still, we should try to disagree with others without debate. This only applies in situations where we’re safe, and the person isn’t degrading/abusive.
We should attempt to have a conversation based on explanation, not argument. Suppose a loved one doesn’t support immigration, while we do. This topic can be quite divisive. Instead of trying to change each other’s perspectives, we can both simply express our beliefs and their origins.
We may disagree but that’s fine; the aim is to communicate respectfully. When we try to understand people’s opposing ideas, we build tolerance. It teaches us that disagreement doesn’t necessarily equal dislike.
Empathy can help us connect to others more meaningfully. It can help us navigate challenging dynamics while remaining tolerant and respectful. Empathy helps us walk in the proverbial shoes of others, lessening our adherence to harmful assumptions.
Not only are we hard-wired for empathy, but we can also actively increase our capacity for it. So, be open to others, practice curiosity, and make empathy a daily habit.