The secret to empathy is not just imagining what it’s like to be in someone’s else’s shoes (that would be you wearing their shoes). What we need to understand what it feels like to be them, in their shoes.
It’s possible this person in front of you hasn’t had the advantages of education you’ve had. Maybe they were not raised in a supportive environment. Perhaps their self esteem is low, their health is not robust or they have been traumatised. Maybe they’ve tried and tried and tried to improve their situation, to no avail.
Experiencing empathy means a couple of things are happening. You understand what someone might be going through (a mental process) AND you feel how someone might be feeling (emotion sharing).
So, whilst you can never really know what another person is facing, you can use your innate empathy to access how you felt when you were rejected, frightened or horribly let down. The ability to connect emotionally is the common ground you share with every other human.
Few people deserve your judgement. And, unless they’re asking directly, people rarely want your advice or for you to solve their problems. What they almost always want is to connect as a human being, to be understood and acknowledged
It’s hard coded into us to care deeply for people who are close to us – and it’s also not particularly challenging to extend our care to people who are similar to us or who have lives like ours. Caring for people we resonate with is not the hard work of empathy.
Bridging difference is when we dig deep into our empathy superpower. Our brain is wired to be fearful of, and resist, what we don’t understand. We must be intentional about overcoming our knee jerk fear reactions.
Social researchers warn it’s the practice of empathy which buffers humanity from disconnection and division. If we let empathy decline across differences, society will continue to fracture.
Empathy is curious, generous, attentive, encouraging, appreciative, life affirming and expansive. It is the opposite of self obsession, cynicism, judgement and fixed positions.
Making an effort to learn the stories of others and offer support can be extremely rewarding as offering compassion activates our dopamine based reward system.
“The 20th century was the Age of Introspection, when self-help and therapy culture encouraged us to believe that the best way to understand who we are and how to live was to look inside ourselves. But it left us gazing at our own navels. The 21st century should become the Age of Empathy, when we discover ourselves not simply through self-reflection, but by becoming interested in the lives of others. We need empathy to create a new kind of revolution. Not an old-fashioned revolution built on new laws, institutions, or policies, but a radical revolution in human relationships”.
Here’s 5 ways we can make others feel better, and in the process, significantly improve our own lives.
Tip 1: Be Curious and Expansive
Tip 2: Pay Closer Attention to Other People
Tip 3: Wish People Well
Tip 4: Improve Your Listening
Tip 5: Work on Your Emotional Fitness
Tip 1: Be Curious and Expansive
Living expansively starts with being curious.
As we teach empathy in our workshop, curiosity comes up in virtually every section as a key trait to cultivate
Curiosity is the secret to non judgement, the foundation for attentive listening and also the driver of a dynamic, expansive worldview.
Curiosity is good for us: Happiness guru Martin Seligman identifies it as a key character strength that can enhance life satisfaction. And it is a useful cure for the chronic loneliness afflicting around one in three Americans.
Cultivating curiosity requires more than having a brief chat about the weather. Crucially, it tries to understand the world inside the head of another person – and the best entry point is curious conversation. We want to access the natural curiosity we had as children, before we knew everything
Talk to More People About Their Lives
An important way to expand your bubble is to hear from others about their everyday lives, and consider how they’re different from yours
Studies have shown that people who regularly engage with a greater number of people (including talking to strangers) are happier and more fulfilled. If it feels uncomfortable, you may have to push yourself, many shy people find great joy in conversation as they’re often superb listeners.
It can be as simple as asking a new colleague for lunch and asking about their priorities, family or upbringing. Go beyond small talk – ask them how they’re doing and what their daily life is like.
Maybe you’ll learn that they leave early on a Wednesday to train their child’s soccer team or have a parent with dementia in a care home. Perhaps they’ve had to overcome a hidden disability, or struggle to find a time and place to pump breast milk during the day.
The more you hear about the things that other people have to factor into their day, the less you might resent your own challenges. Set yourself the challenge of having a conversation with one stranger every week. All it requires is courage.
Some other ideas to expand your horizons.
- Follow people on social media with different backgrounds than you have (different race, religion or political persuasion).
- Start or join a community project such as a community garden, street library or dance in the dark at the local community hall, or volunteer at the local food pantry or help prepare meals at a charity kitchen.
- Start or join a group of like minded souls, for example, if you have experienced grief or loss, join with others who have experienced something similar.
- If you work for a larger organisation, you can even start groups like this in your work community as a way of getting to know more people across the organisation and diversifying your network. Many workplaces would have enough interested people to start a book club, yoga class, running club, cooking club and possibly even a garden.
- An easy step is to talk more intentionally with people you already know, they can surprise you. There are some great question card prompts like Vertellis to get people reflecting more deeply than they usually would.
- There are events designed for people to get a taste of the different life – enough to activate their empathy – for example the CEO sleepout project.
- This idea has been enshrined by the amazing Human Library project.
The Human Library® is, in the true sense of the word, a library of people. We host events where readers can borrow human beings serving as open books and have conversations they would not normally have access to. Every human book from our bookshelf, represent a group in our society that is often subjected to prejudice, stigmatization or discrimination because of their lifestyle, diagnosis, belief, disability, social status, ethnic origin and more.
Embrace Stories to Expand Your Perspectives
A growing body of research has found that people who read fiction tend to better understand and share in the feelings of others — even those who are different from themselves. We can be transported into the interior life of a character, allowing us to see and feel as they do. This facilitates the first key skill of empathy – perspective taking. Stories offer us a way to step outside of ourselves and our own lives and enter the lives of others.
A recent Discover Magazine article by Megan Schmidt says: Fiction can expose us to life circumstances that are very different from our own. Through books, we can experience the world as another gender, ethnicity, culture, sexuality, profession or age. Words on a page can introduce us to what it’s like to lose a child, be swept up in a war, be born into poverty, or leave home and immigrate to a new country. And taken together, this can influence how we relate to others in the real world.
Though research suggests reading is the most effective way to activate your mind and understand the interior life of others – movies, series, talk shows and documentaries are all good too.
Ask friends for recommendations for perspective shifting books and documentaries.
Animate your Inner Traveller
Do you love to travel? Do you love to experience new places? Do you find your senses come alive through travel? Why do you think that is?
Most of us live in bubbles; geographical, social, media, we create lives of habit and comfort in order to feel safe. However, it is also true that many of us find the best of ourselves when we travel. We are curious, open minded and non judgemental, we want to soak in information about people’s lives.
Even if we can’t do a “big trip” there are always ways to replicate the joys of travel.
Think about food as the bridge – take cooking classes from different cultures or visit restaurants from cuisines you know little about and look up information about the country before you go.
Ask colleagues who were born in other countries about the government and systems when they were growing up and see how it compares to your experience.
What about taking your tourist self to different parts of your own city?
You can go to markets in suburbs with a different cultural profile or visit a religious service for a different religion than your own
Tip 2: Pay Closer Attention to Other People
Elevate Empathy is greatly inspired by the famous quote by the astonishing writer Maya Angelou
I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel
Empathy is all about the “feels” – it’s using shared emotion to connect. A lot of other people’s emotion (OPE) comes at you on any given day and often you duck it or dodge it, squash it or act like you don’t really notice emotion is present. Yes, emotion can be messy. However, the experience of emotion is our human connective tissue, we can never really know what their life is like, but we can recall how it feels to be crushed or excluded. We can acknowledge it, and that will make them feel better.
One of the most liberating benefits of practicing empathy is redirecting focus from yourself towards others. A lot of self improvement advice can make you self critical, with empathy that is flipped. You think far less about yourself as you turn your attention to others.
Other focus starts with honing your observation skills to pay greater attention to others. There’s so much information waiting for those who closely observe others. Whilst no one can read our thoughts, our emotions, especially fears and struggles, are often quite visible to attuned observers. We supply a lot of clues via our non verbal communications; especially facial expressions, posture and tone of voice.
Pay special attention to people who are new to your team or have had a challenging time, you’ll be able to notice if they are struggling and you’ll be quietly able to anticipate some of their needs and offer help. Your kindness will be greatly appreciated.
Also, people feel good when you notice and appreciate what they’ve done well. Rather than look for flaws, catch people doing the RIGHT thing.
A few examples:
> Comment positively when a lot of effort has been put in, especially for social or “non mandatory” tasks
> Notice a person’s good intentions or consideration for others
> Offer sincere (not exaggerated) and specific appreciation for a job well done
> Offer gratitude for acts of friendship, for example “thanks for listening to me, I really needed to vent”
At Elevate Empathy, we use a post it note reminder on our screen to help us make these supportive behaviours a habit.
Many people feel starved of encouragement. Some uplifting words can be the spark to move ahead and reach for their goals. We all appreciate hearing we can get where we want to go.
Encouragement sounds like:
“I know you’re discouraged right now, but you’ve got what it takes, I can see it in you”
“Mistakes are for learning from, not for beating yourself up”
Remember, someone’s view on a difficult situation can be transformed through genuine noticing and encouragement, it can be a priceless gift.
And never forget to pay attention to the people closest to you. The closer we feel toward someone, the less likely we are to listen carefully to them. It’s called the closeness-communication bias – we feel we know someone so well, we mentally finish up their sentences and make assumptions about their meaning.
The primary way to maintain close relationships is through everyday talk, asking how they really are, and really paying attention to their answer.
RABBIT HOLE FOR LAST POINT: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/11/well/family/listening-relationships-marriage-closeness-communication-bias.html
Tip 3: Wish People Well
It is a truism that most people are trying their best most of the time. Being humans, at the mercy of our flawed neurobiology, we often fall short of being the best we can be.
It is another truism that we can’t really ever know much about another person’s precise current experience.
Like all humans, when we see someone else slip up, we imagine we could have avoided it and done so much better – Our judgement is really just an ignorant opinion, it’s not facts, it’s not the truth.
On top of this we often send venom towards people when we can’t change the current situation in any way – our poor reaction is ultimately only hurtful to us. Just say someone cuts you off in traffic, which infuriates you, shooting adrenalin through your system. You feel like swearing and letting the person know they greatly disrespected you.
What about trying it a different way. In our workshop we talk about replacement thoughts.
In the driving example it could be: “imagine the stress that person is under and how much anger and rage they’re carrying, I’m glad I don’t feel that way”
Or seeing someone post something on facebook that you find ignorant and ridiculous, you could think …. “they’ve been manipulated by selfish people who took advantage of their fear and uncertainty”
You surely recognises these kind of irritations and the responses we have, they happen all day, everyday. At Elevate Empathy, we love the saying “it’s like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die”. Getting triggered by strangers and judging others adds no value to your life whatsoever.
Replacement thoughts are a form of self empathy, it costs you nothing to think this way and could lead to a big change in your daily level of irritation. Please try it.
Let’s talk a little more about judgement ……
Judgement comes from a few sources:
A/ Our overloaded brain copes with the world by using categories, short cuts, labels and assumptions based on stereotypes. Many stereotypes are laden with judgement which go unchallenged.
B/ Our conditioning and ignorance. Not taking the time to understand the context of a behaviour, forming our opinions without knowing the back story.
C/ Your areas of competency – it’s so easy to forget what it’s like to not know something and sometimes your own sore spots or triggers cause you to judge others, because you’re harsh on your
Empathy can’t co-exist with judgement, we need to have an open mind to meet someone where they are. If we go into conversations with a fixed perspective, we miss the chance to learn.
As discussed, one antidote to judgement and closed mindedness is compassionate curiosity
- Is there a back story to this behaviour?
- What are the stakes for this person?
Watch this entertaining clip from the fantastic TV show Ted Lasso (highly recommended for it’s excellent depictions of kindness).
Remember – “Be curious, not judgemental”
Think about some snap judgements you’ve made about people in the past, how many may have ended up to be wrong? And who are you to judge others anyway?
Curious people find life interesting and engaging, they connect to the world rather than distance themselves. They don’t maintain rigid opinions, they allow new information to challenge their positions. Because they observe and listen intently, they gain insight and are treat others with kindness, knowing that nothing is ever quite as it seems.
Here’s an interesting (and testing) example written by a parenting expert of the underlying feelings of a young person who we perceive has been rude to us.
I am rude because I like the feeling of power and control it gives me, especially as I often feel very out of control on the inside.
I am rude because it gives me an outlet for all my pent-up emotions that I struggle to identify.
I am rude because people in my past spoke to me or each other that way and I’m used to it.
I am rude because it brings me attention, even if it’s negative attention.
I am rude because you got too close, and I’m scared of attachment; I’ll push you away before you reject me.
Finally, I am rude because I’m scared. Most of all, I’m scared I don’t realize any of the above in real-time. You know it now, so please patiently help me realize this too!
Extracted from a piece by Sarah Dillon, National Association of Therapeutic Parenting
What are your snap judgements when you perceive a young person has been rude? Are there other explanations? Can you continue to treat them with respect and see what happens?
Antidote 2: Look for Common Ground
We all carry assumptions about others and inadvertently buy into collective labels—e.g., “Muslim fundamentalist,” “dopeheads” etc, which prevent us from appreciating their individuality. Empathetic people challenge their own preconceptions and prejudices by consciously looking for what they share with people rather than differences.
That said, when you are trying to get to know or understand someone new, be open about, and acknowledge differences. The truth is that you don’t have the same life experience as another person. As a result, you don’t hold the same beliefs. And that’s okay – especially if you are privileged, it is good to acknowledge those kind of differences.
It’s also good to be upfront about wanting find common ground, especially if you find yourself in a disagreement. Be clear that the issue matters but the relationship matters more.
During your conversation, pay attention to how the other person is feeling and be respectful of how they feel. Once you find an area of interest to you both, use follow-up questions to find out more about the other person’s experience. Ask simple, open questions (without probing), and try not to leap ahead with assumptions.
In a group, you can open by looking for common ground or areas of agreement before diving into more contentious group. You can use a simple question like: “What do you think we all want to achieve?”
Tip 4: Improve Your Listening
It surprises many to learn that listening, not talking, is the primary skill of communication.
Listening Expert Oscar Trimboli estimates that by mid career, most professionals have spent 5-8 days in presentation training courses and generally zero days learning to be a better listener. Improving your listening skills will be the fastest and most effective way to improve your relationships.
Empathy is all about intentionally expanding our perspective so we can truly understand another person from inside their life. The vehicle for empathy is non judgemental listening.
Paradoxically, empathetic listeners do less rather than more, especially when people are sharing their concerns. Many of our empathy breaches are caused by jumping in too quickly or trying too hard to help others. Listening needs time to breathe.
It might help you to elevate listening if you consider what a privilege it is to be welcomed into the inner world of another person. Listen for feeling, listen for meaning, listen for the intensity of the emotion. It’s important to approach listening with an open, curious posture about the other person’s reality – take care not to project your own assumptions onto it.
Social Researcher Hugh Mackay talks extensively about listening in his new book The Kindness Revolution. Mackay makes the point that the cardinal rule of listening is receive before you respond.
Free yourself from your own preconceptions and imagine what it must be like to be this other person, from the inside of their world.
It’s not about agreeing with what is said or approving of their behaviour, it’s about perceiving their context fully, so you better understand their feelings, motivations and actions.
“What is essential is our ability to be present to what’s really going on within—to the unique feelings and needs a person is experiencing in that very moment.”
Marshall Rosenberg, psychologist and founder of Non-Violent Communication (NVC)
Most of us haven’t been taught listening, or we think that we need to listen to reply with a matched story of our own. Learning to listen empathetically takes discipline, because our mind works faster than another person’s speech. It’s especially hard for people who are natural problem solvers to keep schtum whilst someone is speaking.
In our workshop we teach two empathetic listening techniques which have the additional benefit of occupying our busy mind; labelling and reflection.
Labelling is synthesising all the non verbal cues you are taking in (tone of voice, rate of speech, facial expressions, gestures) plus the words to make an educated guess at how someone is feeling and giving that emotion a label; for eg “it sounds like your new colleague is not respecting your experience”.
Reflecting happens when a person has come to the end of a story and you show your understanding by wrapping up what has been said. Skilled listeners even add insight into a reflection, indicating they have truly understood the person’s needs.
Rabbit holes for this one are the podcast “We Can Do Hard Things” with Glennon Doyle Episode, “Conversation” and this article from psychologist Nick Wignall https://nickwignall.com/good-listener/
Consider What You Communicate Non Verbally
The mode of emotional content is non verbal, while thoughts are invisible, emotion is very much a physical experience; they show on our face and in our breathing, posture, perspiration, gestures and tone of voice.
Your emotions are visible to an attuned observer, be aware that others may always be evaluating your facial expressions, body language and tone, especially if you are in authority.
Anxiety in the tone of a voice, a flash of irritation, the speed of a gesture and (god forbid) any sign of contempt are almost always taken in unconsciously. If there’s a mismatch between your words and the non verbal cues you’re sending, the non verbal cues will carry more weight to your listener.
When you’re listening, use non verbal signals to show you’re giving your undivided attention
Open Posture – Your posture communicates interests and attention, turn toward and stay open and responsive to the other person.
Eye contact – there’s a reason for the saying “ I want to look the person in the eye” when stakes are high. Eye contact is an activator of empathy circuits in the brain, so it’s important for emotional connection. As you listen, try to maintain fairly good eye contact, the speaker may fluctuate between looking at you and looking away.
Tip: make a point of noticing someone’s eye colour, the extra beat telegraphs the notion that you “see’’ them.
If you notice eye contact is not reciprocated, don’t push it, it can be uncomfortable, especially where there might be cultural differences or a power imbalance.
Face – We process emotions from faces, so you’ll be noticing emotions and also transmitting your own. Adopt an open, attentive face, starting with a reassuring expression. Obviously you will change your expression to respond to what is said.
Tip 5: Work on Your Emotional Fitness
In the Elevate Empathy workshops, we take a small detour away from empathy to look in depth at understanding emotions; including self awareness and emotional regulation. This is the model we use to explore the intense world of emotions:
The four stages of emotional management are:
Emotions are data – they’re like someone knocking on our door trying valiantly to get our attention. We want to learn to acknowledge and accept their presence – invite the guest at the door inside.
Every feeling we register becomes an opportunity to become aware of what sits below it. If we are experiencing discomfort, it takes intention and grace to learn accept our emotions without resistance
“Hello disappointment, I see you there”
Perhaps you can’t give this emotion a name quite yet, it’s just a bad, sad, pissed off feeling …… just let it be there for now.
Most of the time, the healthiest way to manage emotions is to ride them to like a wave – feel all the way through it, instead of trying to shut it down or push it away. Accept the feeling, even if it is unpleasant or unwelcome – let it move through you and the chemical reaction will soon dissipate.
Professor Marc Brackett says: When we ignore or suppress our feelings, they only become stronger. The really powerful emotions build up inside of us like a dark force that inevitably poisons everything we do, whether we like it or not. Hurt feelings don’t vanish on their own, they don’t heal themselves. If we don’t experience our emotions they pile up like a debt which will eventually come due.
TAKE A BEAT
Emotions will happen to us regardless of our level of self control – which begs the question – What can you control in life?
Other people? (We’d love to be able to do that). We don’t control what they think of us, their mood, what they say and do, nothing.
Adversity? Setbacks? Bad luck? Bad Timing? External events? A pandemic for example? No control at all.
Our emotional responses to a trigger or stimulus? Do we control those?
Not initially, no – emotions are biological responses, designed to guide us.
However …. once we move through the physical emotion comes our opportunity
This is a famous quote attributed to Viktor Frankl (who wrote Man’s Search for Meaning)
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom”
In the sacred beats between stimulus , sensation and response lives our human power.
NAME IT TO TAME IT
All emotion researchers recommend learning to recognise and NAME a broader range of emotions in yourself. We know from neuro imaging that there is tangible truth to the proposition “If you can name it you can tame it” – givng how you’re feeling a label is in itself a form of regulation.
The act of labelling brings the “smartest” part of your brain online, the cognitive firepower of your pre frontal cortex. So rather than getting hooked in emotion – naming the feeling begins to create space from the unpleasant sensations and allow you to move through the emotion.
Research shows most people use a limited palette to describe their feelings. Most (and probably you) stick to good thanks, fine, ok or busy. How are you REALLY feeling? … we can’t get far if we don’t have useful answers. Here is another quote from Marc Brackett
“When you can understand and name your emotions, Something magical happens. The mere fact of acknowledgement creates the ability to shift. When we don’t have words for our feelings we’re not just lacking descriptive flourish, we’re lacking authorship of our own lives”.
Possibly the most critical of life skills and a handful of us have probably been supported in learning them.
Marc Brackett adds to this “emotional regulation is not about not feeling. Neither is it exerting tight control over what we feel. And it’s not about banishing unpleasant emotions and feeling only positive ones. Rather, emotional regulation starts with giving ourselves and others the permission to own our feelings …. all of them. …. It’s nearly impossible to imagine what life would be like without the power to regulate our emotions. You’ve been doing it since you were born and you’ve done it, to some degree or another every minute of your waking life. Except that if you are like most of us you haven’t been very good at it, you’ve been doing it in haphazard ad-hoc inconsistent ways”.
Brackett teaches that every emotional response is a unique experience. What triggers your unpleasant emotion today may not even register tomorrow. Today you’re waiting in line at the coffee cart for what seems like an eternity, you feel disrespected you’ve been made to wait and you want to leap over the counter grab your coffee out of the barista’s hands and split. Yesterday, in the same situation your emotional state was serene and you happily gazed around the place and people watched while you waited.
We all need effective, sustainable strategies to help ourselves. The list is nearly limitless depending on the situation and the emotions involved. No two people are alike, each needs a “prescription”.
Elevate Empathy Recommended Resources for Emotional Management
Book: Brene Brown – Atlas of the Heart
Book: Steve Biddulph – Fully Human
Book: Marc Brackett – Permission to Feel
Podcasts: Brene Brown – Unlocking Us and Dare to Lead (only on Spotify)
Podcast: Arthur Brooks (The Atlantic) – How to be Happy
Podcast: Laurie Santos – The Happiness Lab
Source Articles: This New York Times Article is excellent.
Also this one by Roman Kznaric which is a short version of his book How to Start an Empathy Revolution