Now's the Right Time to Learn How to Be More Empathetic

You can teach yourself.
August 30, 2017, 8:05pm
Joe Raedle / Staff

A sex workers' stilettos. Flip-flops belonging to a dwarf. The rainboots of a mother whose teenage daughter was the victim of a horrific stabbing. A traveling exhibit called "A Mile in My Shoes" allows you to literally step into each of these pairs of footwear while listening to an audio recording of the owner's voice.

It's all part of the Empathy Museum, a series of participatory projects that aims to help people see the world through different eyes. And it just might work: Though there's some evidence our baseline level of empathy is innate or even encoded into our genes, research has shown training and deliberate practice can enhance our capacity for recognizing, acknowledging, and even feeling others' pain. In fact, a recent meta-analysis of 18 randomized controlled trials—the gold standard of medical studies—supports the effectiveness of formal training programs to increase empathy levels.

Many researchers measure empathy with questionnaires or tools that assess qualities like being nice, feeling distressed at others' plights, or accurately responding to emotions in statements or actions. But empathy training doesn't just change behaviors. "Science from the last 30 years has shown that our brains actually remain fairly elastic for our entire lives," says Kelsey Crowe, co-author of There Is No Good Card for This and a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley's Center on Civility and Democratic Engagement. "You can rework some of the neurological pathways so parts of the brain related to compassion can be ignited and made more robust with enough practice."

In a University of Wisconsin-Madison study, for example, functional MRI revealed that two weeks of daily 30-minute compassion training shifted the neurological response to suffering—and also increased altruistic behavior toward victims. And at the University of Zurich, researchers found just two positive interactions with strangers boosted activation in the anterior insular cortex—a brain area linked to emotional resonance—when participants later saw similar people in pain.

There are plenty of good reasons for boosting empathy. Sick people whose health providers show empathy tend to stick to their treatment plans and do better in the long run—and empathy from the sick themselves may halt disease outbreaks, since it's the emotion that drives people to take preventative measures. If you're in customer service, recognizing and reacting appropriately to the emotions of others can be critical to doing your job well, says Kate Zabriskie, president of Business Training Works, a corporate training provider whose offerings include empathy training.

And in our current political environment, empathy across the political divide can defuse our most heated debates and also fill in gaps in our own worldview. "We're really missing something when we don't listen to others with different political viewpoints and just write them off as being stupid," Crowe says.

That doesn't mean compromising your own values, or skipping a protest to talk sense into your Trump-supporting uncle-in-law—in fact, Crowe doesn't see any conflict between empathy and activism (she herself practices both). And empathy isn't about "winning" anyway, she says: "It's more about, 'How do I sit in my skin and be around my relatives who voted differently?'" There is evidence that trying to see where others are coming from can have ripple effects, says John Malouff, a researcher at the University of New England in Australia and author of the meta-analysis on training programs. "Expressing empathy provides a model for others to follow," he says. "Empathy can spread."

Pick your target.
Truly understanding someone else—especially someone you disagree with—takes time and energy. Don't expend precious resources arguing with an old high-school buddy on social media. Instead, practice empathic dialogue with people you respect and care about, and keep your goal to improve relationships and foster understanding, rather than to change minds, Crowe says.

Be receptive.
First, you have to shut your mouth—and the constant chatter of your own thoughts, Zabriskie says. Mindfulness, or staying in the present moment, can help. A regular meditation practice cultivates mindfulness by allowing you to detach from your own emotions and see the bigger picture, Crowe says.

But no worries if you're not a regular Headspace user—there are other ways to back out of your own perspective and into someone else's. Before you head into a potentially tense conversation, see if you can imagine a value that person holds that may motivate his or her beliefs, even if it's not one you share, Crowe recommends.

For instance, say your mom or grandmother disparaged the Women's March. You might ask yourself why and realize that she values order and respect for authority, and that a teeming mass of pussy-hat-wearing protestors could cause her to fear society's breakdown. Meanwhile, you value human rights, and feel a similar fear that without dissent, reproductive laws will disintegrate into a confusing mess of state-by-state regulations.

"You're speaking from a place where there is a shared fear around something like disorder, though you both view disorder in a different way," Crowe says. You'll still disagree, but you can phrase your disparate views in terms that resonate.

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Ask the right questions.
A basic go-to Crowe always turns to: "Why is this important to you?" That can help you cut through party-line talking points to uncover why a person truly believes what he or she does.

If you have time and space, you can take it a step further and ask: "What in your personal experience has made you so passionate about this issue?" You're looking to uncover a specific example of something that happened to the person to make them feel the way they do, something Crowe calls "emotional logic."

As you listen to the responses, assess the content of speech and also a person's posture, expression, and movements. Put those all in context with what you know about the person and what he or she is going through, Malouff recommends. All that should enable you to identify feelings, both positive and negative, that person's experiencing.

Echo their thoughts.
Once you think you've got a handle on the other person's feelings, cautiously—not definitively—rephrase and repeat what you've heard. Keep in mind that not everyone expresses feelings in the same way, and some emotions—like fear and hurt—can hide behind anger and hate, Zabriskie says. Hearing their words reflected back makes the other person feel acknowledged and also gives them a chance to offer feedback and correct misconceptions, Malouff says.

Seek common ground.
Pepper another person with continuous questions and you risk coming off like an investigator or a sanctimonious, smug interpreter. But identifying the underlying feelings and expressing your own concerns in similar terms builds emotional connection, Crowe says.

Back to the Women's March example—after you hear your relative out, you can say in a calm tone, "I'm afraid too, and here's why." Again, you're not changing minds, but you can at least leave the conversation with an appreciation of why you differ. "If we look deeply into others, we might see fear and hurt underlying the more obvious hate," Malouff says. "We might then be able to find common ground—or at least accept each other more."

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