Humans experience affective empathy from infancy, physically sensing their caregivers’ emotions and often mirroring those emotions. Cognitive empathy emerges later in development, around three to four years of age, roughly when children start to develop an elementary “theory of mind”—that is, the understanding that other people experience the world differently than they do.
From these early forms of empathy, research suggests we can develop more complex forms that go a long way toward improving our relationships and the world around us. Here are some specific, science-based activities for cultivating empathy:
Habit 1: Cultivate curiosity about strangers
Highly empathic people (HEPs) have an insatiable curiosity about strangers. They will talk to the person sitting next to them on the bus, having retained that natural inquisitiveness we all had as children, but which society is so good at beating out of us.
Curiosity expands our empathy when we talk to people outside our usual social circle, encountering lives and worldviews very different from our own. Curiosity is good for us too: Happiness guru Martin Seligman identifies it as a key character strength that can enhance life satisfaction.
Cultivating curiosity requires more than having a brief chat about the weather. Crucially, it tries to understand the world inside the head of the other person. Set yourself the challenge of having a conversation with one stranger every week. All it requires is courage.
Habit 2: Challenge prejudices and discover commonalities
HEPs challenge their own preconceptions and prejudices by searching for what they share with people rather than what divides them.
Habit 3: Try another person’s life
HEPs expand their empathy by gaining direct experience of other people’s lives, putting into practice the Native American proverb, “Walk a mile in another man’s moccasins before you criticize him.”
Habit 4: Listen hard—and open up
There are two traits required for being an empathic conversationalist.
One is to master the art of radical listening. “What is essential,” says Marshall Rosenberg, psychologist and founder of Non-Violent Communication (NVC), “is our ability to be present to what’s really going on within—to the unique feelings and needs a person is experiencing in that very moment.” HEPs listen hard to others and do all they can to grasp their emotional state and needs, whether it is a friend who has just been diagnosed with cancer or a spouse who is upset at them for working late yet again.
The second trait is to make ourselves vulnerable. Removing our masks and revealing our feelings to someone is vital for creating a strong empathic bond. Empathy is a two-way street that, at its best, is built upon mutual understanding—an exchange of our most important beliefs and experiences.
Habit 5: Inspire mass action and social change
We typically assume empathy happens at the level of individuals, but HEPs understand that empathy can also be a mass phenomenon that brings about fundamental social change.
Empathy will most likely flower on a collective scale if its seeds are planted in our children.
Beyond education, the big challenge is figuring out how social networking technology can harness the power of empathy to create mass political action. This will only happen if social networks learn to spread not just information, but empathic connection.
Habit 6: Develop an ambitious imagination
A final trait of HEPs is that they do far more than empathize with the usual suspects. We tend to believe empathy should be reserved for those living on the social margins or who are suffering. This is necessary, but it is hardly enough.
We also need to empathize with people whose beliefs we don’t share or who may be “enemies” in some way. Empathizing with adversaries is also a route to social tolerance.
The 20th century was the Age of Introspection, when self-help and therapy culture encouraged us to believe that the best way to understand who we are and how to live was to look inside ourselves. But it left us gazing at our own navels. 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.
When you do this, you’ll realize that other people most likely aren’t being evil, unkind, stubborn, or unreasonable – they’re probably just reacting to the situation with the knowledge they have.
Once you understand why others believe what they believe, acknowledge it. Remember: acknowledgement does not always equal agreement. You can accept that people have different opinions from your own, and that they may have good reason to hold those opinions.
Are you more concerned with getting your way, winning, or being right? Or, is your priority to find a solution, build relationships, and accept others? Without an open mind and attitude, you probably won’t have enough room for empathy.
Listen to the entire message that the other person is trying to communicate. Listen with your ears – what is being said, and what tone is being used? Listen with your eyes – what is the person doing with his or her body while speaking? Listen with your instincts – do you sense that the person is not communicating something important? Listen with your heart – what do you think the other person feels?
When in doubt, ask the person to explain his or her position. This is probably the simplest, and most direct, way to understand the other person. However, it’s probably the least used way to develop empathy.
If you practice these skills when you interact with people you’ll likely appear much more caring and approachable – simply because you increase your interest in what others think, feel, and experience. It’s a great gift to be willing and able to see the world from a variety of perspectives – and it’s a gift that you can use all of the time, in any situation.