Being able to practice empathy is one of the biggest skills you can learn. In a world that spends so much time picking at flaws and igniting fear and anger in people, empathy can be a balm to that fear and anger. It can help you, and others, lead a more fulfilling and healthier life.
Listen. Listening is one of the most important ways you can show empathy, and this means truly listening. When you listen to someone you aren't fiddling about on your phone, or thinking about what you're going to make for dinner tonight, you're really taking in what the other person is saying.
- If you're listening to someone and you get distracted by thinking about dinner or whatever it is you want to say next in the conversation, bring yourself back to the present by saying "I was just thinking about ___(last thing you remember them saying)__ and I was wondering if you could repeat what you just said so that I don't miss anything."
- True listening means being present, not thinking ahead to what you're going to be doing in the future, or mired in thoughts of the past. If these thoughts arise, acknowledge them and let them go.
- Look them in the eye (don't stare, but try and maintain eye contact), sit facing them. Don't let your gaze drift all over the place, because it will look as though you aren't paying attention and that you don't care what they have to say.
Open up. Just listening to someone isn't going to build a bridge between the two of you. Opening up emotionally is an incredibly difficult and brave thing to do but it will deepen the connection with another person.
- Empathy is a two-way street. It's about sharing vulnerabilities and emotional connection, so to truly practice empathy you have to share your own inner landscape with someone else.
- Now this doesn't mean that you have to spill your life story to every person that you meet. You get to decide who you're going to share yourself with, but to practice empathy you have to be open to the possibility and the opportunity of opening up, especially with the people you least expect to.
Offer physical affection. Now you can't do this for everyone and obviously you should ask before you give someone physical affection to make sure that it's okay (even if you've known them for awhile). Showing physical affection, however, can boost oxytocin levels and make both of you feel better.
- If you know the person well, give them a hug, or put an arm around their shoulders, or a hand on their arm. Not only does this show that your attention is focused on them, but it creates a connection between the two of you.
- Oxytocin also has been known to help people better interpret other people's emotions, so a consensual hug can build up your emotional intelligence as well as the emotional intelligence of the person with whom you're empathizing.
Focus your attention outwards. Pay attention to your surroundings and to the feelings, expressions, and actions of the people around you. Be mindful about how they might be feeling.
- Notice your surroundings, really notice them. Pay attention to sounds, smells, sights and register them consciously. People tend to register things unconsciously (think how many times you've walked or driven somewhere and have no memory whatsoever of getting from A to B).
- Try to avoid labeling other people's emotions and behaviors as "bad" or "good" (although of course if someone is acting in a dangerous or harmful manner towards you or another people, you have every right to shut them down).
- Research has shown that practicing mindfulness about your surroundings and the people around you makes you more likely to extend empathy towards them and to help when someone needs it.
Withhold judgment. This is an important step when practicing mindfulness and when practicing empathy. It can be really hard to withhold immediate judgment, especially when first meeting or interacting with someone. And yet, this is a crucial step towards being empathetic.
- Basically this means trying to gain a deeper understanding of someone else's perspective without immediately saying that it is bad or good. In this way you're able to get to a deeper level of understanding. This does not necessarily mean that the other person is right or good, but taking the time to gain a deeper perspective will help you feel empathy towards them.
- Of course this is not to say that if someone is acting a reprehensible manner (saying racist or sexist things or behaving like a bully) that you shouldn't intervene or say something. Speaking up is an act of courage and compassion.
Offer help. This shows that you see what someone is going through and you want to make life easier for them. Offering help is a great act of empathy, because it shows that you're willing to take time out of your day to do something for someone else without asking anything in return.
- Offering help can be as simple as making sure someone has enough change to ride the bus, or buying coffee for the person behind you in line.
- It can be as big as helping your grandfather set up his computer and talking him through how it works, it can be offering to take care of your sister's kids for the weekend so she can take a break.
- Even just offering the opportunity to help, can be an empathetic gesture. Tell a friend that if they need anything they can ask, opening up the way for providing help and support.
Practice curiosity about strangers. Part of showing empathy is being interested in other people, especially people that you know nothing about and who are outside of your social circle. These can be the random people you meet on the bus, or who you're standing in line for coffee with.
- This sort of curiosity moves beyond simply talking about the weather (although that is always a great place to start). You want to understand a little of another person's world, especially a person that you might not normally talk to. It will also require opening up about yourself, because you can't have this type of conversation without giving of yourself, too.
- Having these types of conversations is also a great time to test your empathy, because some people don't want to talk, so you can learn to pick out these behaviors and leave these people alone. Check for things like, are they reading a book, wearing headphones, facing away from everyone and not making eye contact.
- Also, always make sure that you care for yourself in these situations. If you feel threatened or made uncomfortable by the person you're talking to, end the conversation and get away. Trust your instincts.
Challenge your own prejudice. It's hard sometimes not to remember that just because you firmly believe something doesn't mean that you're right. Taking time to analyze your own prejudices and learn to see people rather than "welfare moms" or "terrorist" or "gangster," will help you practice your empathy.
- Search for things that you share in common with someone who you originally see as one specific label and use that commonality to forge a connection with that person.
- Challenge your biases and assumptions. Ask yourself why you think that all poor people are lazy, or all people with mental health issues are dangerous, or that all black boys are gangsters and thugs. A lot of assumptions and prejudices are bases on erroneous information that has bee widespread. Educate yourself and listen to the groups that are affected by this misinformation.
- Remember that just because you believe something that doesn't necessarily make it true. Be willing to reconsider your own ideas and ways of seeing the world.
Use your imagination. A good imagination is one of the cornerstones of showing empathy towards something. You're not going to be able to experience every single thing that can happen to a person, but you can use your imagination to give you an inkling of how it might feel and use that understanding to empathize with them.
- Actively imagining what someone else might be suffering can help you empathize with them. So, instead of decided that the old man on the street begging for money is automatically going to use what he gets on booze, try imagining what it would be like to live on the streets, on the mercy of unmerciful people, in a system that punishes people like veterans, the mentally ill, and simply the destitute.
- Research has found that people who read fiction tend to be better understanding the emotions, behaviors, and intentions. So read widely and try and branch out into the works of marginalized people.
Practice experiential empathy. This means getting a direct experience of another person's life, the "walk a mile in another person's shoes" adage. The writer, George Orwell, lived on the streets of London to discover what it was like for those on the margins of society. Orwell made friends, changed his view on the destitute (deciding they were not "drunken scoundrels"), and changed his views on inequality.
- You don't have to go quite that far, but consider taking on all the things that your mother does in a day (for a week). You'll discover how difficult it is to manage both the home and the work and you'll have a better appreciation for how much work she has to do (maybe you'll pitch in a bit more).
- Likewise, if you're religious (or atheist) consider attending the service of another faith, not to ridicule or to feel superior to, but to learn what it is like for them.
Treat people as being important. Start treating people as if they have as much importance as you do. Recognize that you aren't the only one living in this world and that you aren't some superior being.
- Take each person as they come. Don't lump them into stereotypical groups and start saying "all Mexicans are lazy," or "all Asians are good at math." Each person is an individual and comes with a set of flaws and strengths.
Practice loving-kindness meditation. Meditating is a great way to help yourself deal with things like depression and anxiety and just the stresses of day to day existence, but practicing meditation, especially loving-kindness meditation, can help make you more empathetic.
- Start by doing regular meditation. Sit somewhere comfortable and focus on your breathing. When thoughts start to intrude, accept them and release them from your mind. Visualize yourself as an object of of loving kindness. Don't start thinking about all your flaws and don't start thinking about all your strengths either. Simply see yourself as worthy of love (since all people are worthy of love).
- Once you've got the loving kindness to yourself down, start practicing it for 4 different types of people: someone you respect, like a teacher; a dearly beloved person, like a family member or friend; a neutral person, someone at a store, someone you saw outside that day; and a hostile person, someone with whom you are in conflict.
- To keep you on track it can be helpful to repeat a mantra to yourself, like "loving-kindness" to remind you when you get off track and to help keep you focused on holding the feelings of loving kindness, even towards the hostile person.