Excerpted from Empathy: Why it Matters, and How to Get It, in which philosopher Roman Krznaric aims to teach us how to become more empathetic so we can connect more meaningfully with others.
An essential question
How can we, as humans, expand our empathic potential? We may well be wired for empathy, but we still need to think about how we’re going to bring our circuits to life.
Exploring the subject of empathy
I have spent the last dozen years searching for an answer to this question, exploring the research on empathy in fields from experimental psychology to social history, from anthropology to literary studies, from politics to brain science. Along the way I have delved into the lives of pioneering empathists, including an Argentinian revolutionary, a best-selling American novelist, and Europe’s most famous undercover journalist. I have also done fieldwork, speaking to people from every walk of life about their experiences of empathy, or its absence. Whether they’ve been trauma nurses or investment bankers, police officers or professional working mothers, people living on the streets of inner-city London or wealthy Guatemalan plantation owners, almost everyone has a story to tell about stepping into the shoes of others.
What I have discovered is that highly empathic people have something in common. They make an effort to cultivate six habits—a set of attitudes and daily practices that spark the empathic circuitry in their brains, enabling them to understand how other people see the world. The challenge we face, if we hope to fully realize the Homo empathicus that lies within each of us, is to develop these six habits in ourselves as best we can.
The six habits of highly empathic people
Habit 1: Switch On Your Empathic Brain
Shifting our mental frameworks to recognize that empathy is at the core of human nature and that it can be expanded throughout our lives.
Habit 2: Make the Imaginative Leap
Making a conscious effort to step into other people’s shoes—including those of our “enemies”—to acknowledge their humanity, individuality and perspectives.
Habit 3: Seek Experiential Adventures
Exploring lives and cultures that contrast with our own through direct immersion, empathic journeying, and social cooperation.
Habit 4: Practice the Craft of Conversation
Fostering curiosity about strangers and radical listening and taking off our emotional masks.
Habit 5: Travel in Your Armchair
Transporting ourselves into other people’s minds with the help of art, literature, film and online social networks.
Habit 6: Inspire a Revolution
Generating empathy on a mass scale to create social change and extending our empathy skills to embrace the natural world.
There are habits to suit every temperament and personality, whether you’re an extrovert or an introvert, a risk-taking adventurer or a connoisseur of intimacy and subtle emotions. Making them part of your everyday life will change how you think, how you feel and what you do. You’ll start to be fascinated by entering people’s mindsets and trying to see where they’re coming from—their underlying motives, aspirations and beliefs. Your understanding of what makes people tick will expand beyond measure and, like many highly empathic people, you may begin to find others more interesting than yourself.
There’s nothing Utopian about living by these six habits: the capacity to empathize is one of the great hidden talents possessed by almost every human being.
The human capacity to empathize
Nearly all of us have it—even if we don’t always put it to use. Only a tiny proportion of people display what the psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen calls “zero degrees of empathy.” [also see Olson’s “Empathy and Neuropolitics“] Among them are psychopaths, who have a cognitive ability to enter your mind but make no emotional bond with you (think Hannibal Lecter), and, arguably, some people with autism spectrum disorders such as Asperger’s syndrome, who have a harder time understanding the emotions and experiences of others. Together they account for no more than about 2 percent of the general population. The other 98 percent of humanity is born to empathize and wired for social connection.
We also empathize much more frequently than we would ever imagine. Most of us exercise our empathic brains every day, although we’re often not conscious of doing so. When you notice a new work colleague is nervous before giving a presentation, you might try to imagine the anxiety and uncertainty she is feeling, and give her the reassurance she needs. You see someone begging under a bridge, and rather than just pitying him (remember, that’s sympathy), you may think about what it feels like to sleep out on a cold winter night or to have people walk straight past you without even bothering to look you in the eye. But empathy is not just about an awareness of the pain and suffering around us. Even when choosing a birthday present for your favorite aunt, you think about the kind of gift that would really delight her—someone with her particular tastes, and of her age and background—not what you might personally wish for as a present.
Why does empathy matter so much?
I’m convinced that we cannot explain vast realms of social life without acknowledging the reality and importance of everyday empathy. Just try to imagine a world where it did not exist. It’s almost impossible to do so. Mothers would ignore the hunger cries of newborn babies. Charities fighting child poverty would fold due to lack of donations. Few people would make the effort to help a person in a wheelchair trying to open a shop door. Your friends would yawn with boredom as you told them about your marriage breaking up.
This heartless world of indifference is not the one we live in. Open your eyes to it, and you will realize that empathy is all around us; it’s the stuff we swim in. Yet if that is the case, what’s the problem? Why should we care about cultivating the six habits of highly empathic people? Because at this moment in history we are suffering from an acute empathy deficit, both as a society and in our individual lives.
Want to become more empathic? Read COMPASSION MEDITATION: Interview with Geshe Lobsang Tenzin Negi on Cognitively-based Compassion Training for more information