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Develop Empathy

Getting to know people who are different than us will teach us they aren't.  – Donald Miller

What is Empathy?

Empathy is the experience of understanding another person's condition from their perspective. You place yourself in their shoes and feel what they are feeling. A 2009 study revealed a 40% decrease in empathy amongst college students, compared to that of their 1980 and 90’s counterparts. Researchers continue to investigate the cause of this significant drop. Possible origins include:
  • Frequent exposure to violent gaming and high-drama ‘reality’ television has desensitized us to the pain of others. 
  • A hypercompetitive learning atmosphere Changing expectations of success and an impeding desire to “get ahead” have caused us to think mainly of ourselves 
  • Decreased face-to-face contact Tweets and status updates may be seen by hundreds of people, yet require us to actually connect with zero. Text alone lacks any observable emotion.
While there may not be one single source, this drastic change in culture is certainly worth noting. The confidence and individualism of this generation, as well as the increased competition between one another, are all potentially healthy, motivating factors. But qualities that allow us to think outside our self are equally important. 
The more we are aware of our own thoughts and feelings, the better we can understanding what others are feeling.  Empathy is the experience of understanding another person's condition from their perspective. 
You place yourself in their shoes and feel what they are feeling.

How do I Develop Empathy?

  • Find Common Ground. Take a curious approach in discovering more about the people around you. Set yourself the challenge of having a conversation with one stranger every week. It takes a little courage, but venturing outside your usual social circle will expand your empathy. A study in Italy revealed we are less likely to empathize with people who we view as different from ourselves. Empathy forces you to challenge stereotypes. Our perception of others is skewed by our existing assumptions, formed from past experiences and the influence of others. They lead us to categorize others and filter out their individuality. Don’t fall victim to this narrow mindset; find commonalities with others rather than differences.

  • Just Like Me is a short meditation built on the idea that we all go through the same struggles as people, regardless of how different we may seem to be. When we perceive someone as similar to ourselves, we are more likely to act positively towards that person. As you see people throughout the day repeat to yourself "this person wants to be happy--just like me." 

  • Really Listen. Master the art of listening. Be present as the other person speaks. Don’t interrupt, dismiss their concerns or be quick to offer advice. Give them their moment- don’t be planning your response as they’re talking. Simply listen. Be aware of their non-verbal communication, as well.

  • Practice Compassion. Empathy grows as we practice kindness and compassion. Empathizing with our perceived enemies can also increase our tolerance. Caring does not have to mean agreeing with, or even liking, another person. It just means understanding what they are feeling.

  • Learn to Lead. As we grow more empathetic, we become stronger leaders, learning how to communicate with others and motivate them toward action. Offer those around you genuine recognition and praise. Notice what others are doing and let them know that it matters. Encourage others through what you say and how you treat them. Smile, ask questions, and use their name. Imagine how it feels when someone (i.e. Supervisor, co-worker, professor) does this for you.

The Takeaway

Our fast-paced lives can quickly water down our empathy for others. We may think there isn’t time to consider others’ feelings. Doing so, however, has benefits that reach across our personal lives and into the community. Empathy is a skill that can be built through curiosity, active listening, kindness and leadership. With an increased consideration for others, you can live a more impactful life.

This SIY   video, discusses useful mental habits and listening skills that help you increase empathy (click on the empathy tab).