In a classic episode of The Simpsons, Bart won an elephant named Stampy. At the end of the episode, they had to give Stampy to a wildlife preserve because they could no longer afford him. Back in the wild, Stampy began to head-butt the other elephants and knock them over as Bart cheered him on. In response to this, the park ranger observed that, like humans, “some animals are just jerks".
Surely, there are some people who are “just jerks", but for the other 98% of the population, it doesn’t need to be this way. With the right mindset, just about anyone can overcome barriers to empathy, relate more to others, and be, well…not a jerk!
Most people don’t believe this; rather, they believe that you are either empathic or not. It’s just a trait that you are born with, and if you can’t put yourself into other peoples’ shoes now, you never will. Luckily, this isn’t true – and that presents us all with a wonderful opportunity to improve this area in our lives.
I’m grateful for the fact that I’ve always been a fairly empathic person in general, but even so, everyone has lapses at times. In modern society, it is so easy to get caught up in whatever screen you happen to be starting at, or just to feel too busy or rushed to truly relate to other people around you and feel what they feel.
In a recent trip to the airport, my cab driver and I discussed this very topic. His brother is a scientist, who is devoting his life to studying one very specific application of one very specific enzyme in the body. The problems that he studies are exciting to him, and keep him up at night or cause him to forget to eat because he is so interested in working on it.
For someone like me (or my cab driver, or just about anyone), it is almost impossible to comprehend what is going through this scientist’s mind. How can he possibly be so enthralled with something that, to me and many others, is so incredibly boring?
I don’t really need to “get inside his head" to feel some kind of empathy, though. On the surface, it seems impossible to relate to him. But on a more fundamental level, I can relate to the feeling of passion that some stimulus happens to provoke in him. For me, that stimulus might involve ranting about economics or political philosophy – sometimes if I start investigating a subject, I can have a difficult time stopping too.
In that sense, I can feel what this scientist feels. Sure, I may not be excited about the same things, but I know what it is like to feel excited about something. It is just a human emotion, something that all of us have the potential to experience.
In this way, we really can all cultivate empathy in our lives. And this isn’t empty speculation – studies have shown that even extreme narcissists can learn to be more empathic. Researchers are starting to discover that it is peoples’ beliefs about empathy that determine how “good" at it they are. Those who believe that empathy is a fixed characteristic of themselves tend to be less empathic, while those who believe that empathy can be developed do end up exerting more effort and become more empathic.
In other words, if you have a mindset primed for growth and personal development in this area, you can succeed at becoming more empathic. But once you have been convinced that cultivating empathy is possible, how do you go about actually doing it?
As a long term strategy, the best way to cultivate empathy is to develop more emotional control in general. A greater understanding of your own emotions and how you respond to certain situations will help you identify with others who may be feeling those emotions or responding to a similar situation.
This is easier said than done, of course. But part of it is to generally improve your mindfulness, perhaps by doing things like playing “the noticing game", or trying to notice as many things around you as possible rather than filter them out. And of course, things like meditation or yoga will certainly enhance your emotional understanding and control.
But you don’t need me to tell you that meditation and mindfulness are good for you; I’m sure you already know that. Luckily, there are more specific ways you can help grow and foster your capacity for empathy. Here are a few of them:
- Focus your attention outwards. Pay more attention to the behaviors or expressions of other people. Listen to others when they speak rather than being stuck inside your own head.
- Cultivate general interpersonal skills. Don’t interrupt people. Stop looking at your phone. Make eye contact. Tune in to non-verbal communication. Use peoples’ names. Smile. Liberally dish out compliments.
- Physically “mirror" people. In other words, if they cross their legs, you cross your legs, and so on. We have a natural tendency to do this with people whom we like, but you can press yourself to do it more in general. Just don’t focus too hard on this technique at the expense of mindfulness and paying attention.
- Actively imagine what someone else may be thinking or feeling. This is kind of like directly “practicing" empathy.
- Compete against others, say, by playing games. When you compete with someone, you make a mental model of their intentions, plans, or thoughts. Consider great chess players, and this makes more sense.
- Spend time volunteering or helping others in need. Simply donating money won’t do; something more hands on will help you relate better to other people. Share.
- Talk with strangers. You should be curious about other people, even ones you’ve never met.
- Stop making assumptions about others, and challenge your personal prejudices. It is essential for empathy that you stop relying on stereotypes – while you may have a knee-jerk reaction to stereotype, make sure you talk to them and find out for yourself.
Empathy is an important skill. It isn’t just about making yourself a better person (although it will help you do that); it will improve your relationships, both personal and professional. Taking the time to cultivate empathy pays dividends.
Got any tips for cultivating empathy? Share them below.