The beauty in empathy is that it can spark all sorts of prosocial behaviors: When you can understand the feelings of another person, you’re more likely to support and cooperate with them, forgive them, and offer them your help; you’re also less likely to be antagonistic or retaliatory against them. Part of that capacity is rooted in emotional mimicry, says empathy expert Jodi Halpern, MD, PhD, professor of bioethics at the University of California Berkeley. “This just means that when you see someone who feels sad, a part of you feels sad, too,” she says, “which is an inherent quality that some people will have more of than others.”
“Empathic curiosity [is] using your cognition to imagine what the world looks like from inside another person’s perspective.” —Jodi Halpern, MD, PhD, professor of bioethics at University of California Berkeley
But there’s also another facet of empathy called cognitive empathy that reflects a distinct brain function, says Dr. Halpern. This part isn’t tied to your nature, so much as your behavior: “Cognitive empathy is the basis for empathic curiosity, which just means using your cognition to actively imagine what the world looks like from inside another person’s perspective, looking out,” she says. And you can certainly learn how to become more empathetic, from a cognitive standpoint, she adds, “no matter how little emotional resonance you may feel around others.”
That’s all to say empathy doesn’t have to look like heartfelt conversations and handholding and gazing into someone’s eyes. Despite popular belief, “empathy can be very emotionally subdued,” says Dr. Halpern. “What it’s really about is engaging with someone in whatever way allows you to feel more of their being, as a person, and what it’s really like to be them.” In other words, you can empathize with someone while laughing about something silly as much as you can while listening to them disclose something deeply personal.
Though building empathy certainly involves choosing to consider this other person’s emotions, that choice, crucially, doesn’t have to negate your own feelings; empathy isn’t a zero-sum game. While empathy burnout is real for people surrounded by those who are suffering (and true empaths, with their ability to sense and embody others’ emotions, may be more susceptible to it), it’s a misconception to think that being empathetic comes at a cost to you, says Dr. Halpern.
Empathy that involves what researchers call other-oriented perspective-taking—reflecting on the other person’s experience, but not aiming to experience it yourself—can allow you to understand someone’s emotions without taking them on as your personal burden to bear. And being aware of that reality can make empathy feel easier to practice from the outset.
Why are some people less empathetic than others?
It should be noted that certain personality disorders, like borderline personality disorder and autism, can make it difficult for some people to empathize (whereas certain genetic variations may make it particularly easy for others, including the natural empaths). In other cases, people may not naturally lean toward empathy if adults in their childhood environment didn’t model empathy, much as with any character trait.
Experiencing burnout or high stress levels can also lead someone to avoid taking the cognitive step to consider someone else’s perspective—particularly when they perceive that process as something requiring a lot of mental effort, according to a study on perceptions around empathy. (When the researchers of that study showed that empathy was, indeed, an effective and “worth it” practice, the participants perceived it as less mentally taxing, and they no longer avoided engaging with it.)
In conversations that entail conflict, there’s also lower incentive to empathize versus in discussions where everyone has similar feelings, anyway. “When you’re in conflict, the emotional part of empathy shuts down for most people, and you don’t feel motivated to see the other person’s perspective,” says Dr. Halpern. “You just want them to see things your way.”
But even in the midst of an argument, all hope for empathy still isn’t lost. By reframing what empathy really involves and aims to accomplish, you can motivate yourself to exercise your empathy muscle in any scenario and strengthen it over time as a result.
How to become more empathetic in your relationships and everyday interactions
1. Believe being empathetic is possible with minimal effort
According to Dr. Halpern, many people have an internal bias against being empathetic in a world where they may feel like they barely have enough time or energy to handle their own emotional needs. “They’re scared that, in being empathetic, they’ll feel overly burdened or burned out,” she says.
“Instead of viewing empathy as a way to feel things for other people, focus on being curious about their lives and willing to listen.” —Dr. Halpern
But in reality, the burden of empathy comes only when you take on the emotions of others as your own—that is, engaging in self-oriented as opposed to other-oriented perspective-taking. “Instead of viewing empathy as a way to feel things for other people, just focus on being curious about their lives and willing to listen and find out more about them,” says Dr. Halpern. Rather than a challenge, this kind of engagement with others’ livelihoods can actually offer a welcome escape from the details of your own life. Just as you might watch a TV show or read a book at the end of a long day, immersing yourself in someone else’s story empathetically isn’t necessarily draining, she adds.
Perceiving empathy in this way makes it feel like a skill you can easily improve. And that mindset is key to success: Research has found that people who hold a malleable mindset about empathy (that is, believing it can be developed) actually are more empathetic in challenging contexts than people who believe empathy can’t be developed.
2. Ask more open-ended questions
At the root of empathy is being able to really see the person with whom you’re engaging. After all, it’s tough to appreciate their perspective if you haven’t taken the time to look at or understand it. And without mind-reading powers, the only way to do that is to ask them open-ended questions.
Empathy expert Nicole Price, PhD, author of the forthcoming book Spark the Heart: Engineering Empathy in Your Organization, starts every meeting she runs with a personal question for everyone to answer. To come up with ideas, she uses cards from Actually Curious, a conversation card game originally designed to boost empathy amid the 2018 midterms.
“For example, a recent question we answered was, ‘What’s something that you used to care about, but through the years, has become less important to you?’” says Dr. Price. “This wasn’t connected to what we were meeting about in any way. But you can imagine that if I meet with my team every week for 50 weeks this year, and we’re always sharing answers to a question like that, by the end of the year, we’re already better seeing each other as humans.”
3. Really listen to understand
While it’s true that we’re all coming at any conversation with biases shaped by our personal experiences, do your best to hear another person’s words from their perspective, not yours. This is like applying the platinum rule to empathy versus the golden rule: The platinum rule says to treat others how they want to be treated, not how you do; and effective empathy involves imagining how they perceive life, not how you would if you were walking in their shoes.
Dr. Price calls this “listening for understanding,” since you’re attempting to hear what a person actually means by their words. “For example, if my husband says to me, ‘We haven’t spent any time together in two weeks,’ my first instinct may just be to refute that, if it’s not entirely true,” she says. “I might say, ‘We were together on Friday and on Thursday, so what do you mean we didn’t spend any time?’ But if I were listening to really understand him, I’d come to a different conclusion: What he’s trying to say is that he wants to spend more time with me.”
4. Question your own beliefs in challenging conversations
Accepting that you’re wrong or hold imperfect beliefs can stir up difficult emotions, like shame, fear, and embarrassment, says Michael Tennant, founder and CEO of Curiosity Lab, creator of the Actually Curious card game, and author of the forthcoming book 5 Phases of Installing Empathy. “Rather than endure these difficult emotions to potentially create harmony, some people would prefer to avoid admitting that they’re wrong at all costs.”
But in that mindset, you’ll find it nearly impossible to empathize with someone else’s stance, if it’s different from your own. By instead embracing intellectual humility and questioning your own beliefs, you’ll put yourself in a better position to understand the value of divergent ones.
That’s not to say you have to concede that someone else’s beliefs are right (more on that below). It’s just about taking a step back to acknowledge that yours aren’t necessarily right or universal, and to examine, with curiosity, the personal biases that may have influenced them.
“If you’re defaulting to winning, pause to see whether fear or shame or anger has hijacked your ability to stay in the conversation.” —Michael Tennant, founder and CEO, Curiosity Lab
To do that in the moment of a heated argument requires identifying the emotions that are wrapped up with certain beliefs and distinguishing one from the other. “If you’re just defaulting to winning, pause to see whether fear or shame or anger has hijacked your ability to stay in the conversation,” says Tennant. “Label what you’re feeling before you respond and honor that the conversation has triggered something in you regardless of the other person’s intent.”
Once you can separate your emotions from your beliefs, you’ll be better able to perceive your viewpoint as just that: a viewpoint which may or may not hold more water than someone else’s.
5. Know that empathizing is not conceding your point or agreeing
When someone says or does something that upsets you, it may feel especially hard to be empathetic toward them. After all, why would you empathize with an action that hurts you or goes against your values? But actually, that’s exactly when you would want to use empathic curiosity, says Dr. Halpern, to figure out, genuinely, why they’re acting the way they are in the first place.
If you were to, instead, double down on your opposing perspective and assume you understand what they’re thinking and feeling, you’d just put the argument at a standstill. Whereas, if you aim to see their perspective, you’ll actually put yourself in a better position to “win” or achieve a positive outcome for you. “Expert negotiators do much better by knowing what the other person really cares about and how they really see things,” says Dr. Halpern. So, empathizing in an argument isn’t giving ground; it’s just putting you and the other person on the same playing field.
Viewing empathy in that light can make it easier to use in situations where you know you’re never going to agree with the other person—because empathy doesn’t equal agreement, says Dr. Price. “If someone is feeling embarrassed and you empathize with them, it does not mean that, in that moment, you agree that they should feel embarrassed; it doesn’t mean you agree with their cognitive processing,” she says. “It means that you can understand the emotion, and from that position of understanding, you can have a fruitful discussion about it.”
6. Find common ground with people who are different from you
Part of learning how to become more empathetic is getting out of your bubble and spending time with people who have different realities and livelihoods than you do, says Dr. Halpern, perhaps by volunteering in a community organization, traveling, or simply striking up conversation with people at work or in your neighborhood with whom you don’t typically chat. The more perspectives you can see that are different from your own, the more you’ll be able to appreciate peoples’ differences, which opens the door for empathy.
At first, it might feel tough to empathize with someone who is particularly different from you; that’s why we tend to stick to our bubbles in the first place. To get over that barrier, it’s helpful to find some sense of shared identity, which research has shown can better motivate you to see the world from the other person’s eyes.
If you’re volunteering or working on a project with this person, the goal of that work can be the shared identity; or maybe it’s as simple as the fact that you’re both only children or you both enjoy a certain hobby, even if your backgrounds or political beliefs are vastly different.
If none of these similarities are apparent in a conversation with someone, it may be helpful to just consider our common humanity, says Tennant. “We all operate, in simple terms, to protect our personal safety, and in more complex terms, to protect our egos,” he says. “If you can honor that we’re all doing that, some to a deeper extent than others, it’s a lot easier to have grace for the person on the other side, whomever they may be.”
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