Empathy is the ability to imaginatively step into someone else’s shoes and understand their feelings and perspective – and if you haven’t noticed, we could use as much as we can get these days. From political polarization to racial tension to wars throughout the world, we seem to be at rock bottom in terms of this crucial skill.
So what can we do about it? It starts with each of us honing our ability to be more empathetic – with friends, coworkers, and even strangers – and here are some tips to do exactly that.
How to Be More Empathetic
5 practical tips to be more empathetic in any situation
#1 Make curiosity a habit
The switch from judgment to curiosity is a crucial step for anyone who wants to be more empathetic. Whether it’s with friends, coworkers, or complete strangers, we too often judge others based on our own assumptions. But we can teach ourselves to make a habit out of curiosity, switching from thinking we know what’s going on to genuinely wondering what’s going on. The mental shift is subtle, but it can change our perspective in a big way. Consider this situation.
You are at the grocery store, and in between you and your favorite yogurt is a toddler having a complete meltdown. The mother seems to have lost control and is standing there, not really doing or saying much at all.
She is a terrible mother. I mean, look at her kid acting like a hurricane, and she’s not doing anything! Some people shouldn’t have kids until they are ready.
That mom doesn’t seem to be doing anything while her kid has a meltdown. I wonder what is going on for her? Maybe she is overwhelmed, sleep deprived, tired of the terrible twos, unsure of what to do? Maybe she could use a hug and some reassurance that everything will be okay?
Just a dose of curiosity, and I want to go help her finish her shopping!
You see how the switch to curiosity is a switch from making statements to asking questions – and it opens us up to be more empathetic.
#2 Widen your circle
Empathy, especially for strangers, starts with exposure to people who are different than us. Research has found that contact with people of different races increases our empathy toward them at a neurological level. So if you want to be more empathetic, widen your circle.
In one fascinating study at the University of Queensland, psychologist Yuan Cao and her colleagues found that exposure to groups that are racially different than us can increase the empathy we feel toward those groups when we see them in pain.
In the study, 23 Chinese immigrants were shown videos of actors – some Chinese and some Caucasian – receiving a painful touch of a syringe needle to the face. They examined the participant’s brains while they watched the videos using fMRI technology – and what they found is truly astounding. The Chinese immigrants reacted more strongly to the videos of the Chinese actors in pain than the Caucasians. But that’s not all. The Chinese immigrants who reported more contact with Caucasians in their lives showed greater empathetic responses to the Caucasian actors, showing that this tendency to show more empathy toward our “in-group” is a malleable characteristic. The sample is small, but it’s a fascinating study that needs to be replicated.
These findings indicate that one answer to the question of how to be more empathetic, in the broadest sense of the term, is simply to interact with more people, especially people from a different “group” than yours.
For many people, though, there are definite limits to the diversity they have close by. But don’t worry, out next step is also powerful and knows no limits.
#3 Get lost in a good book
But not just any book
Reading literary fiction, specifically, has been shown to improve empathy. These findings come from a fascinating series of studies led by Emanuele Castano, a social psychologist at The New School in New York City. In the studies, participants were split up into different reading groups based on genre: popular fiction, literary fiction, nonfiction, or nothing – and then given a test to measure their ability to infer and understand other people’s emotions.
The findings were remarkable. When the participants read nothing, non-fiction, or popular fiction, their results were unimpressive. But reading literary fiction led to big increases in the reader’s ability to empathize.
How could this be? Literary fiction books tend to look into the psychological complexities of characters. These interesting, complex characters drive the story, and we as readers are emotionally involved in their desires and motivations. The inner lives of the characters are not easily discerned but rather warrant deeper exploration, which is often revealed in layers throughout the book. Sounds like a good recipe for peaking people’s curiosity, right?
It turns out that when it comes to improving empathy, it’s perfectly fine to practice on fictional characters!
Imagine the possibilities here. You may not be able to hang out with a family of illegal immigrants, or someone living in war-torn Mosul, Iraq, but that doesn’t mean you can’t actively work at increasing your empathy with them. Through literary fiction, we can practice empathy globally – helpful, and even essential, in a complex, globalized world.
#4 Learn another language
Or at least expose your kids
A pair of research studies from the University of Chicago has found that bilingual children – and even children who have merely been exposed to other languages – show an increased ability to take others’ perspectives – basically, to be more empathetic.
In the first study, children aged 4 to 6 were asked to move different size toy cars. There were three cars: small, medium and large. The kids were on one side of the table and could see all the cars, but an adult sitting across from them couldn’t see the smallest car – and the child could see that the adult could only see the medium and large cars. When the adults said to the kids, “Oh, I see a small car, can you get it for me?” the bilingual and exposed children were more likely to move the medium car – the smallest car that the adults could see. They had a greater ability to take the adult’s perspective and act accordingly.
The second study was very similar, but slightly simplified for even younger kids: toddlers between 14 and 17 months. They had two bananas at the table, and they could see both even though one was hidden from the adult across from them. When the adult asked for the banana, the bilingual and exposed children were much more likely to hand the adult the banana that they could see, showing a greater ability to see the situation from the adult’s perspective.
What does this have to do with learning another language? Katherine Kinzler, associate professor of psychology and human development at Cornell University, speculates that growing up in a household where two languages are spoken gives children a rich social experience, where they are forced to figure out who is speaking which language to whom, when and where the languages are spoken, and who understands what. This translates into a greater ability to take others’ perspectives as they move through life. Muy bien, no?
#5 Ask someone how they are doing
And then stop and really listen to them
And I mean listening with more than one of your senses. Pay attention to the person’s body language, their facial expressions and overall demeanor – as well as what they say. You can do this with your cashier at the grocery store, your barista, or your best friend. We all have a tendency to breeze through some interactions on autopilot, but if you want to actively work on connecting with others, try this at least once per day. Ask the question more sincerely, so they know that you actually want to know, and are not necessarily looking for a quick, automatic, “I’m good.” It’s a really slight change of inflection in the question and people will know that you mean it.
Sympathy means feeling compassion for others, whereas empathy is the ability to understood and even feel the emotions of others. It’s deeper, more personal. Ask someone how they are doing in a way that shows that you actually want a deeper, more personal answer.
There you go! 5 practical, research-based tips for how to be more empathetic. We make the world a more compassionate place, one act at a time.
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