Developing empathy is an essential emotional intelligence skill for life
As human beings we are a little self-centred. It can sometimes seem as thought we don’t do anything unless we get something out of it. That something can sometimes be a reward, or a feeling of accomplishment or satisfaction from helping someone else. This feeling good when we help, or understand, each other is an evolutionary trait which stems from the fact that we are (by nature) social animals. We have evolved to care for each other, largely due to the fact that our survival often depended on groups. Psychologists have discovered that we are primed for empathy by the strong attachments we form in the first two years of our lives. Empathy doesn’t stop developing in childhood. We can nurture its growth throughout our live and use it as a radical force for social transformation. Research into developing empathy over the last ten years has shown that we can make empathy an attitude and part of our daily lives.
Here are the 7 habits we can develop to increase our empathy:
Habit 1: Cultivate your curiosity
The research shows that highly empathic people have an insatiable curiosity about other people. They seem to retain the natural inquisitiveness of children and will talk to everyone they meet, from the person sitting next to them on the bus to the lunch lady in the cafeteria. Our curiosity expands our empathy. When we talk to people outside our usual social circle, we discover perspectives and lives very different from our own. Cultivating curiosity is more than having a brief chat, it is about wanting to understand the world inside the head of another person. Have you ever wondered about the person who cleans your office? Ever wondered what their dreams, goals, and aspirations are? Set yourself a challenge to learn something about a stranger each week. Aim to learn something about who they are, their story and what drives them.
Habit 2: Seek common ground
Highly empathetic people challenge their own preconceptions by seeking common ground. “How are we similar?” The Ben franklin effect is an example of this approach to breaking down barriers. We understand that in order to learn and grow we need to push ourselves beyond our comfort zone, but it is not always easy to do. So much conflict is caused by focusing on the differences and not seeking out the common ground. Find someone you may be somewhat uncomfortable around because they are different than you, and make a concerted effort to get to know them. See how many things you have in common. Try attending events with people different from the crowd that you usually hang out with and find out why they think the way they do.
Habit 3: Shift perspective
We can also build empathy by gaining direct experience of another’s life by “Walking a mile in their shoes.” Examples of this are the CEO’s who spent the night on the street recently, volunteer to look after a friend’s toddler for a day, do a “God swap” (attending the services of faiths different from your own), or spend a vacation living and volunteering in a village in a developing country. There is nothing quite like experiencing how others actually live to give our preconceptions and judgements a reality check.
Developing empathy is a journey of shirting attitudes and developing habits, not a single step.
Habit 4: Open up and listen
There are two characteristics we require to become an empathic conversationalist. The first is to really listen, and the second is to open up and make ourselves vulnerable. Developing empathy requires us to move beyond listening for an opportunity to speak towards learning to listen to understand. Part of listening to understand is asking questions to both deepen our understanding and to ensure the other person knows we are actually listening. Beyond that we need to be vulnerable and share ourselves to increase trust and understanding. Removing our masks and sharing our feelings to another is a vital part of creating a strong empathic bond. Empathy is a two-way street that is built on mutual understanding. This understanding comes from sharing our most cherished beliefs and experiences. One of the best ways to gain trust and have others open up to you is to share some of your feelings with them. By doing so, we give others permission to share more of themselves, allowing for a more real, deeper conversation. Showing some vulnerability, as scary as it can be, allows us to be experienced as more human – with all of the joys, sorrows, and struggles that this entails.
Habit 5: Read more to develop a dynamic imagination
Have you ever gotten lost in a good book? Reading helps develop cognitive empathy, the ability to know what others think, intend, believe, or want. By reading specifically literary fiction (the type of often books nominated for National Book Awards) we are able to gain perspective on how people think, what they do and why? We also gain greater insights into people from other cultures, races, social classes or from a different gender.
Habit 6: Turn the tables on the Golden Rule
We were all told that we should “Treat others as you would like to be treated,” but a more helpful phrase is to “Treat others as they would like to be treated.” Empathy helps us understand what their needs and desires are and how they may differ to ours. Take for example picking a birthday present for a work colleague. I love dark chocolate and would be delighted to receive it as a present, but not everyone likes 70% dark chocolate. A colleague may be a diabetic or prefer wine. We cannot really rely on the golden rule when trying to understand one another. We need to take the time to discover who they are, what they dream of and what motivates them.
Habit 7: Let your heart break, and be part of the change
When we allow ourselves to witness pain and injustice and really get “That could have been me!”, we have an opportunity to take action and be part of the change. As Melinda Gates said in her Stanford Commencement address, “In the course of your lives, without any plan on your part, you’ll come to see suffering that will break your heart. When it happens, and it will, don’t turn away from it; turn toward it. That is the moment when change is born.” Allow yourself to feel. Let your heartbreak spur you on to make the changes you dream of.
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