Simple strategies for developing greater empathy

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Neuropsychologist Simon Baron-Cohen has devised a test called Reading the Mind in the Eyes in which you are shown 36 pairs of eyes and have to choose one of four words that best describes what each person is feeling or thinking – for instance, jealous, arrogant, panicked or hateful.

The average score of around 26 suggests that the majority of people are surprisingly good – though far from perfect – at visually reading others’ emotions.

As the psychologist and inventor of emotional intelligence Daniel Goleman puts it, without empathy a person is “emotionally tone deaf”.

Here are some simple strategies for developing greater empathy:

BE CURIOUS

img_2598Highly empathic people (HEPs) have an insatiable curiosity about strangers. They will talk to the person sitting next to them on the bus, having retained that natural inquisitiveness we all had as children, but which society is so good at beating out of us. They find other people more interesting than themselves. Curiosity expands our empathy when we talk to people outside our usual social circle

Cultivating curiosity requires more than having a brief chat about the weather. Crucially, it tries to understand the world inside the head of the other person. We are confronted by strangers every day, like the guy who sells the Big Issue in the street or the new employee who always eats his lunch alone. Set yourself the challenge of having a conversation with one stranger every week. All it requires is courage.

CHALLENGE PREJUDICES

We all have assumptions about others and use collective labels—e.g., “Muslim fundamentalist”, that prevent us from appeciating their individuality. HEPs challenge their own preconceptions and prejudices by searching for what they share with people rather than what divides them.

TRY ANOTHER PERSON’S LIFE

 

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So you think ice climbing and hang-gliding are extreme sports? Then you need to try experiential empathy, the most challenging—and potentially rewarding—of them all. HEPs expand their empathy by gaining direct experience of other people’s lives.

Harper Lee’s classic novel To Kill A Mockingbird and one line will jump out at you: “You never really understand another person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

Human beings are naturally primed to embrace this message. According to the latest neuroscience research, 98% of people (the exceptions include those with psychopathic tendencies) have the ability to empathise wired into their brains – an in-built capacity for stepping into the shoes of others and understanding their feelings and perspectives.

The problem is that most don’t tap into their full empathic potential in everyday life.

You can easily find yourself passing by a mother struggling with a pram on some steps as you rush to a work meeting, or read about a tragic earthquake in a distant country then let it slip your mind as you click a link to check the latest football results.

Listen

IMG_0665Listening out for people’s feelings and needs – whether it is a friend who has just been diagnosed with breast cancer or a spouse who is upset at you for working late yet again – gives them a sense of being understood.

Let people have their say, hold back from interrupting and even reflect back what they’ve told you so they knew you were really listening. There’s a term for doing this – “radical listening”.

Radical listening can have an extraordinary impact on resolving conflict situations. Rosenberg points out that in employer-employee disputes, if both sides literally repeat what the other side just said before speaking themselves, conflict resolution is reached 50% faster.

Roman Krznaric, Ph.D., is a founding faculty member of The School of Life in London and empathy advisor to organizations including Oxfam and the United Nations, and he formerly taught sociology and politics at Cambridge University. He is the author of The Wonderbox: Curious Histories of How to Live and How to Find Fulfilling Work.

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