In my last blog, I shed some light on what empathy is and what makes it so difficult to exercise it. My intent behind this blog is to dig deeper still and uncover how we could grow empathy in the most effective manner.
There is a growing need for emotionally intelligent and empathic behavior in our world today. Research and our experience shows us that people who are more empathic are more successful, innovative, tend to have higher quality and more supportive relationships with others, and are generally happier and healthier.
So, the billion-dollar question is, is it possible to grow empathy and, if so, how does one do it? The good news is that empathy can be learned thanks to the neuroplasticity of our brain.
Neuroscience tells us that empathy is triggered when two parts of our brain work together—the emotional and cognitive. Emotional empathy is when we feel a physical resonance with the state of the other person. We feel our own and the other person’s emotions, in our own body. Cognitive empathy is a more conceptual understanding of what the other person could be experiencing and why he/she is experiencing it. We try to understand, sense, and then infer what is happening with the other person. Together, emotional attunement and cognitive understanding inspire us to act empathically or compassionately. This is called empathic concern.
Let’s now explore the 3 most effective habits to grow our empathy with some micro tips for each of these habits:
Habit 1 – Build your attention and awareness
“Where attention goes, energy flows. Where intention goes, energy flows.” - James Redfield
To increase our empathic behavior, we need to work on where our awareness and attention is while interacting with others. We need to attune our attention to the emotions embodied within us so as to accurately label what we’re feeling and also figure out what others around us are feeling. This necessitates a very strong self-awareness as well as focused and mindful attention without distractions. Together, strong self-awareness and focused attention create an environment conducive for an empathic exchange.
How do we train our distracted and wandering mind and build our attention? A recent study found that 47 percent of the time, our minds are not focused on what we are currently doing. That’s a little less than half of the time! Attention is especially required in emotional empathy as it is tied to activation of neural circuits that signal changes to our internal bodily states.
Research shows that contemplative practices such as meditation boost our awareness and our attention. Experienced meditators have been found to have less brain activity in areas related to mind-wandering and are more aware of their internal bodily sensations.
Habit 2 - Develop “other focus” instead of “me focus”
“True humility is not thinking less of yourself; It is thinking of yourself less.” C.S.Lewis
In our increasingly narcissistic society, we’re becoming all about I, me, and myself. With Habit 1 we’re moving from distraction to awareness and being in the present. With Habit 2, we’re moving from me-centricity to others-awareness. According to Tasha Eurich, while only 4% might fit the diagnostic criteria for narcissism, 96% of us display some narcissistic behaviors, at least some percentage of the time. According to her research, this age of increased self-absorption has given rise to low-grade, widespread narcissism.
So, what habits can we grow to become more others-focused and less self-absorbed? We can start with being curious about others and genuinely interested in knowing about them. We can listen with our full attention and try to become empathic listeners. Stephen Covey describes it this way:“In empathic listening, you listen with your ears, but you also, and more importantly, listen with your eyes and with your heart. You listen for feeling, for meaning. You listen for behavior. You use your right brain as well as your left. You sense, you intuit, you feel. Empathic listening is so powerful because it gives you accurate data to work with. Instead of projecting your own autobiography and assuming thoughts, feelings, motives and interpretation, you’re dealing with the reality inside another person’s head and heart. You’re listening to understand. You’re focused on receiving the deep communication of another human soul.”
Habit 3 – Exercise your muscle of compassion
“True compassion means not only feeling another's pain but also being moved to help relieve it." - Daniel Goleman
In my experience, though we are all wired for kindness and pro-sociality, what keeps us from acting compassionately is our conditioning, prejudices, judgments, and our emotions. We need to consciously accept that we are living with a colored vision of the world and take up focused effort to become more open-minded and open-hearted. With an open mind and an open heart, we can bring compassionate action to the fore.
Research shows us that we can intellectually and emotionally become more open-minded by reading more of literary fiction and watching compelling movies which help us understand others better. We can find a cause that we feel strongly about and volunteer our time to help others. We can consciously train our mind to extend our circle of compassion by imagining all our coworkers as an extension of our own family. In addition, we could consider learning more about empathy and work with a coach to help us sustain empathy as a habit.
So, start with these 3 habits and the micro tips and see how they work for you. And keep at it! As Atticus Finch says in Harper Lee’s novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”