The 21st century should become the Age of Empathy, when we discover ourselves not simply through self-reflection, but by becoming interested in the lives of others. We need empathy to create a new kind of revolution. Not an old-fashioned revolution built on new laws, institutions, or policies, but a radical revolution in human relationships.
Roman Krznaric, Six Habits Of Highly Empathetic Persons, Greater Good Magazine
NOW IS THE TIME
According to Krznaric in the abovementioned quotation, we need to use empathy to create a “radical revolution in human relationships”. Today, the idea of this “new kind of revolution” as he calls it has met its kairos moment – “the right, critical, or opportune moment” (Wikipedia). There is no better time than the present for us to be conduits of empathy to our family members, work colleagues, customers, neighbours, and our wider society at large.
Recently, the expression “we are all in this together” has become a mantra whose truth should resonate with each of us. Now more than ever, we all need empathy – immunocompromised persons who are fearful of contracting a deadly virus, workers who have been recently laid off or furloughed, parents who are concerned about the education and safety of their children, business persons whose businesses are threatened, and persons with a heightened sense of uncertainty about the future. We all need empathy, and Now Is The Time to show empathy in unprecedented ways!
Have you ever felt an emotional connection that sparked a feeling of joy or sadness while you were watching a favourite film or reading a beloved book? This sometimes happens when a certain character or incident in a scene resonates with us. The emotions we experience, whether sad or happy, usually mirror what the character is expressing or experiencing in the moment. The situations that trigger our emotional connections and activate our emotions are as individual as we are and are not restricted to films and books – sometimes it is an incident, the sight of a certain person, an expression on someone’s face, or certain words or expressions used by an individual. What is it that causes these emotional connections? As human beings, we are really hardwired to emotionally connect with each other through a hormone called oxytocin which stimulates empathy.
In its broadest expression, empathy involves emotional connection and emotional reflection: It is the ability to understand, connect with, internalize, and reflect the emotions of another person. When we feel an emotional connection with someone else’s experience, we usually want to genuinely reflect their emotional state through our speech, body language, actions, and behaviour. This entire process is set in motion by oxytocin, the hormone which makes us feel connected to others in a compassionate way: When we feel an emotional connection to another person’s situation and the emotions they are expressing, the brain releases oxytocin which make us feel empathy. Empathy is an essential building block of healthy human relationships as it enables us to connect with others beyond their words and allows us to relate to them on an emotional level. In the cycle of empathy, however, we must move from connection to reflection.
INCREASING OUR EMPATHY QUOTIENT
Let us face it, where empathy is concerned, we are not created equal. Some of us are indeed more empathetic than others. The good news is that we can increase our empathy quotient. Here are some things that we can do to evolve into more empathetic social beings:
DO AN EMPATHY SELF-ASSESSMENT
Do a self-assessment to evaluate our strengths and weaknesses in the area of empathy:
- Identify instances of repeated failure to show empathy: For example, a friend experienced an event like a pet’s death, a family member failed to keep a promise, or a co-worker is experiencing a family difficulty.
- Identify the cases where we felt no connection and no concern: For example, inability to empathize with someone who lost a pet.
- Probe these failures to identify underlying feelings and causes: For example, there was a feeling of indifference due to lack of experience in nurturing a bond with a pet.
- Consider how our responses affected other persons and our relationship with them. [Note: Not everyone will show or tell us how our behaviour affected him/her.]
RECOGNIZE OUR KEY DEVELOPMENTAL AREAS
The findings of our empathy self-assessment will enable us to:
- Understand why we need to increase our empathy quotient.
- Recognize the areas in which we need to develop empathy.
- Identify and rank our top three priorities.
SET DEVELOPMENT IN MOTION
After recognition, we must set our development in motion. Here are some critical actions:
Move Beyond Our Social In-Group
- Have a desire to grow our social connectedness by getting to know people outside of our social in-group.
Broaden Our Understanding Of The Human Condition
- Get to know other people’s hearts and minds – their worldviews, life experiences, perspectives, feelings, and concerns in order to build our understanding of their situation.
Develop Greater Compassion
- Seek to develop greater compassion by helping or serving disadvantaged persons like the homeless, the disabled, or abandoned children.
- Find ways to connect with someone else’s situation: For example, you may not have experienced the loss of a pet but you may be familiar with the loss of a loved one.
In order to build our empathy competence, we need to become curious about persons outside our social in-group, question and challenge our prejudices, build bridges, discover common ground, and even try living in another person’s situation for a period.
CONNECTING WITH OTHERS THROUGH EMPATHY
When engaging with others, we can empathetically connect with them as follows:
Demonstrate Undivided Attention And Interest
- Give the other person our undivided attention.
- Show interest by looking directly at the other person, keeping an upright posture, and maintaining eye contact.
Make A Kindred Connection
- Imagine how you would feel the same situation.
- Find common ground to connect with the other person: Share a similar experience.
Practise Empathetic Listening
- Listen for feeling words and observe any emotional cues that the other person expresses through body language or voice.
- Make an empathy statement: For example, “I would feel the same way in that situation…”; “I am sorry that this happened to you…”
- Avoid criticizing or devaluing the other person’s feelings: For example, “You should not feel like that”; “I did not expect you to feel like that”.
Reflect What We Hear
- Reflect the other person’s feelings by adjusting our tone, words, body language, and action.
May we all strive to practise and perfect the art of empathy, remembering that empathy is…
seeing with the eyes of another.
listening with the ears of another.
feeling with the heart of another.
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