We tend to think of empathy as something that is fixed rather than something which can be learned or improved, but, in reality, you can train your brain to be more empathetic just like you can train it in other ways.
While your current ability to empathize with others is largely down to your genes and experiences as a child, the adult brain remains capable of plastic change right up to the end of life. This means that you can practice empathy and alter your brain in such a way as to make it a more natural instinct going forward.
And there are many reasons why you might wish to boost your level of empathy for others. These include:
- you will be better placed to understand the needs of those around you
- you will resolve conflicts with others more easily
- you will be able to more accurately predict the actions of others
- you will be better at arguing your point of view
- you will become a source of great healing for others
- you will gain better motivational skills
- you will be better able to build trust with others
- you will be able to reflect upon the hurt others cause you and reach a place of forgiveness quicker
- you will become more aware of the non-verbal cues of yourself and others
There are plenty of reasons, then, to seek to increase your empathetic capabilities, but how can you go about actually achieving this goal?
Well, here are 8 methods that you can use in your life starting today.
1. Practice Listening, Not Simply Hearing
When you enter a discussion with another person, the natural tendency is to take in what they are saying, but process it at a very superficial level so that you may compute a suitable response. This is fine when you are just chatting with them about their holidays or day-to-day topics.
When the conversation turns more serious, however, and a greater emotional element is present, you need to switch from merely hearing their words to genuinely listening to them and paying attention to their meaning.
Forget about getting a response ready in your head while they are still talking – this will be a distraction. Instead, clear your mind of any other thoughts and simply focus on their voice, their words, and their non-verbal cues so that you may absorb as much of their story as you can.
The more thoroughly you are able to listen, the better you will become at recognizing subtle differences between emotions and this is a fundamental element of empathy.
2. Imagine Yourself As The Other Person
It may sound obvious, but being able to put yourself in the shoes of another and see through their eyes is an effective way to grow the empathy you have for them.
We rarely seek to do this in our daily lives and prefer to see individuals as a collection of labels. We may look at a person and think they are being dramatic, pretentious, silly, or weak, but these are just abstract constructs that bear little resemblance to the complexity of real people.
Instead, if you can try and imagine yourself in their position, with their life experiences and their character, you might be able to understand the reasons for their thoughts and actions. You’ll be able to see beyond the labels you have previously given them and connect with their underlying being.
3. See The Human
Tying in with the previous point about stepping into the shoes of others; when you go about your daily business, try to purposefully notice the people who touch your life. Don’t just ignore or mindlessly interact with them, but look right into their faces and see the human being inside.
You will likely have many opportunities to practice this on a daily basis, whether when walking down the street, ordering your daily cuppa at the local coffee shop, or conversing with colleagues and clients at work.
And you don’t even have to physically interact with someone to consider the intricate web of connections you have with others. When you eat your store-bought sandwich at lunchtime, think about all the individuals who have played a part in making it; the farmer, the baker, the cashier at the shop, the drivers who deliver ingredients around the country, and the person who actually layered it all together, cut it, and packaged it ready for you to eat. That sandwich is more than just something to ease your hunger; that sandwich is a link to the rest of humanity.
The more often you can recognize the roles that other people play in your life, the more likely you are to appreciate them and see yourself as part of a community and not as an individual. This will go a long way to building empathy for those around you.
4. Challenge Your Prejudices
People are very much inclined to see themselves as part of several different groups and these help to create an identity. They also lead to conflict and suspicion when members of different groups are forced into confrontation.
Whether these lines are drawn between racial, gender, class, or religious differences, an attitude of “us and them” naturally prevails. Such an attitude is a barrier to empathy.
If you wish to enhance your ability to empathize, you should try to challenge the beliefs and prejudices that have emerged from your identification as a member of a particular group.
In reality, there is nothing to differentiate you from any other person; there is no “us and them” because both “us” and “them” are simply constructs of your mind as part of a collective group mind.
So, to enable greater empathy, you must remove these barriers and experience other people just as humans, and as equals in all respects regardless of the differences you might observe on the outside.
More essential empath reading (article continues below):
- 4 Signs You’re An Intuitive Empath (Not Just An Empath)
- 17 Survival Tips For Empaths And Highly Sensitive People
- The Dark Side Of Empaths
- 11 Struggles Empaths Face On A Daily Basis
- 7 Signs You’re An Extroverted Empath
- 3 Alternatives For Empaths Who Are Tired Of Shielding Themselves
5. Find Commonalities
To aid you in fighting your prejudices and learning greater empathy, it is helpful to focus not on what makes you different to others, but on what you may have in common.
If you are able to identify characteristics of a person that you can relate to, you will experience a far greater level of understanding and care when interacting with them.
Knowing that you share a commonality – whatever that may be – will help blur the boundaries between your inner self and their inner self and enable you to engage with their feelings as if they were your own.
Greater empathy can therefore be found, not by keeping people at arm’s length, but by seeking ways to feel mentally and spiritually closer to them.
6. Always Be Curious
As we get older, our social circles tend to get smaller and smaller and this can inhibit our ability to expand the empathetic areas of our brains.
Instead, look for opportunities to engage with those people who you would otherwise have no reason to speak to. Strike up a conversation with a stranger and try to find out what their world view is; see if you can speak to people of different ages, races, religions, sexual orientations, or political persuasions.
The wider you cast your net, the greater variety of thoughts and beliefs you’ll encounter and these will help you appreciate that yours is not the only way to live a life.
Again, the understanding you’ll gain will help humanize other people and other groups, and it will break down long-held preconceptions that might have prevented you from empathizing with them.
7. Fake It At First
There is much to be said about how the mind influences behavior, but there is a great deal of feedback going in the opposite direction.
Empathy is not just an emotional process, it is a way of being, a way of acting and a way of caring. Even if you don’t feel empathy for someone straight away, if you behave from an empathetic point of view, your mind can and will follow your direction.
Just by showing a caring attitude, you can generate a caring feeling and, from this, empathy can develop in its entirety.
8. Read Fiction
Studies have shown that people who read fictional novels regularly possess a greater capacity for empathy.
Just by reading such tales, you exercise the parts of your brain that are used in empathy, thus strengthening neural pathways. Using your imagination to step into the shoes of a fictional character makes it easier for you to do the same when it comes to your interactions in the real world.
Empathy is something that virtually everyone has the capacity to feel – only to differing degrees. No matter what your current level of empathy is and no matter how young or old you are, you CAN nurture and grow this ability using the 8 suggestions above. As discussed, empathy has many benefits and you have the power to reach out and grab these when you apply yourself daily.