“The great gift of human beings is that we have the power of empathy.”
~ Meryl Streep ~
From the boardroom to the classroom, empathy is a word we are hearing more and more about these days. While at one time we assumed that humans were basically self-interested creatures that had to be taught to get along with each other. Researchers, such as biologist Frans de Waal, are finding that like our primitive ancestors, we are social creatures that have naturally evolved to take care of each other. While psychologists have shown us that up until we are two years of age is a critical time for us to learn empathy, we also know that we can increase it throughout our lifetime. There is perhaps no other attribute that is more vital to develop relationships with others than empathy.
Here are 5 ways we can increase empathy:
Becoming an active listener
Empathy requires that we cultivate the trait of active listening. Most people are thinking how they are going to respond while the other person is still speaking. Active listening means being totally focused on what the other person is saying. To practice this, pretend that your job is to only focus on what the person has to say and accurately feed back to them what they have just said. A bonus, if you do your job really well, is to be able to receive additional information and have the person to go deeper than they normally would have without your feedback. As your active listening skills increase, you will find people drawn to you and opening up to you more.
Challenge prejudices and stereotypes
We know that in order to learn and grow we need to push ourselves beyond our comfort zone. One way to do this is to make an effort to know people that are different from us. Find someone who you are somewhat uncomfortable around because they are different than yourself and make a genuine attempt to get to know them. See how many things you can find that you have in common. Find common struggles that you both share. Attend events where the gathering is different from the crowd that you normally hang out with. Find out why they believe and think the way they do.
Develop a curiosity about others and push your comfort zone
Have you ever wondered about the homeless person panhandling across the street from where you work? Have you asked yourself how he became homeless, if he has family, friends and how he views the world? What about the person who cleans your office? Ever wondered what their dreams, goals and aspirations are? Many people are curious but few take the time, or step out of their comfort zone to ask. Challenge yourself to slowly find out more about these people. You may be quite surprised by what you find out.
Spend some time in another’s shoes
George Orwell worked as a colonial policeman in Burma when he decided to find out what it was like to live as a beggar and vagabond. He dressed like a tramp and lived on the streets of London with the rest of the homeless. For Orwell it was a life changing experience, providing him with great literary material and a fresh perspective on living. He considered this to be the most valuable experience of his life. Recently New York Yankees General Manager, Brian Cashman and 225 other people, volunteered to sleep on the streets of Manhattan in potentially freezing temperatures to raise awareness of the plight of homeless children. There are other opportunities to experience how people live, such as spending a month surviving off what someone receives on welfare. Another way is to spend time volunteering with those who are marginalized and we know little about.
Share yourself with others
The best way to gain trust and have others open up to you, is to share some of your feelings with them. I am not talking about being the person who shares their whole life story within five minutes of meeting you. What I mean is sharing some of your fears as well as your joys and aspirations. By doing so, you will give others permission to share more of themselves, allowing for deeper conversation. By showing some vulnerability you will come across as more human with all of the joys, sorrows and struggles that all of us share.