7 Ways to Build More Empathy

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“I can’t imagine what it must have been like to go through what you just did. It sounds awful and I am here to listen.”

Do you have someone in your life who offers this type of support and listening ear? If you do, consider yourself blessed. You know someone with empathy. Unfortunately, those people seem to be rare, at least in the culturally discourse.

It seems we have lost sight of the need for empathy. Instead we are flooded by news reports of personal attacks and indifference to the struggle of others. However, if we want to build a better society and healthy relationships, empathy must be more prevalent in our public and private relationships.

In fact, empathy could bring a little civility to our culture. We need to feel each other’s pain more often than when a natural disaster or tragedy happens. Yes, Americans do respond well to national pain, but what about every day kindness and understanding in order to promote unity?

Empathy is basically putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. You can have affective empathy in which you feel or share someone’s emotions. Or you can have cognitive empathy in which you understand another person’s perspective and how they think.

And here is the good news. Empathy is a trait or skill that can be learned. We learn it best through exposure to the needs and struggles of people around us–not just by hearing something on the news, but by actually spending time with someone who is going through a tough time. When this happens, your brain actives towards compassion.

Interestingly, one of the barriers towards becoming more empathic is wealth. In general, wealthy people turn more inward and socialize with others who have wealth. Unless they intentionally put themselves in touch with needy people, they will be less likely to empathize.

So here are 7 ways to teach someone to be more empathetic:

  1. Expose them to the needs of others. Take them to soup kitchens, homeless shelters, drug rehabilitation centers, etc. Exposure will activate parts of the brain needed to build empathy. It’s gets you out fo your own life experiences and helps you see how those around you live.
  2. Listen to people with whom you don’t agree.Don’t always talk to your own familiar group. Rather talk to those different from you and hear other perspectives. Be open to differing views. I make it a point to listen to several news channels just to hear the differences. And yes, there are major differences! One of the problems we now have is that certain groups act like attack dogs if you don’t share their perspective. They aren’t listening if you don’t agree with them. This is dangerous and only creates enmity.
  3. Don’t be judgmentalrather listen with an open mind. Again, this idea is under attack There is only tolerance for certain cultural narratives.  All people should be able to express their views without fear of retaliation. While I try not to take sides on political issues, I am horrified by the lack of civility, shouting people down, and attacking those who are different. This shows a complete lack of empathy and is bullying. Bullies judge!
  4. Try to fully understand a position that is different from yours and hear all sidesbefore you dismiss another point of view. Ask questions, get clarification, seek the truth. After you have explored something fully, you may or may not come back to your original opinion.
  5. Practice comforting others. Get focused on the needs of others. This will make you feel better. Acknowledge another person’s pain, share how you feel by saying something like, “I don’t know what to say” or “I am glad you told me.” Then be encouraging and supportive by offering hope- not unrealistic hope, but hope for a better day.

Begin by practicing a few of these strategies and empathy will grow. Empathy is not a fixed trait-you either have it or you don’t. Rather it can be learned and increased in anyone.

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