Can You Teach Yourself to be More Empathetic?
Everybody’s suddenly talking about empathy, from the Dalai Lama to agony aunts, from business gurus to happiness experts. And it’s not surprising, since in the last decade neuroscientists have discovered that 98 per cent of us have empathy wired into our brains.
The old story that we are basically selfish, self-interested creatures has been debunked. Our selfish inner drives exist side by side with our empathic other half. We are homo empathicus.
The problem is that most of us haven’t yet learned how to switch on our neural circuitry and fulfil our empathic potential. And this really matters. Why? Normally we think of empathy – the art of stepping imaginatively into the shoes of another person and looking at the world from their perspective – as something that makes you a more caring and considerate person by expanding your moral universe. But empathy doesn’t just make you good – it’s good for you too. It can help heal broken relationships, make you a more creative person, and expand your wellbeing by forging the human bonds that make life worth living.
So what does it take to up your personal empathy quotient? How can empathy play a bigger, more positive role in your life? Here are seven tips.
- Practice empathic listening. Next time things are getting tense with your partner, focus intently on listening to their feelings and needs – without interrupting.
- Ask your partner to return the favour.
- Once a week have a conversation with a different person you don’t know well. Get curious about people you walk past every day, such as the woman who vacuums the office floor. Move beyond superficial talk and discuss the stuff that really matters in life – love, family, ambitions, politics…
- Have a think about these questions. Who in your life do you most need to develop more empathy with? How might you do it?
- Pick up the phone and call a person you’re having difficulties with – maybe a family member or someone at work. Try to hear to their side of the story.
- Spend a day thinking about all the people you rely on in some way, however indirectly - the person who picked the coffee beans you drink, the person who sewed the shirt you are wearing…What responsibilities might you have towards them?
- Put your feet up and watch a great empathy film that catapults you into someone else’s life. Try The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Gandhi or even Avatar.