Actually, you don’t need to increase your empathy. You just need to remember how to access your empathy.
Life is so loud and distracting it has become difficult to shut out the noise, tune into the signals you are picking up from someone, and separate what you sense from your judgments and interpretation. The less we are aware in the moment, the harder it is to discern other people’s feelings and intentions.
Yet empathy is critical to establishing healthy relationships and developing social and leadership skills.
The good news is that empathy is a survival mechanism so you can turn it back on anytime. The bad news is that research shows an increase in power – including promotions or business success – often correlates with a decrease in empathy. As your status increases, the more you need to deliberately turn on your empathy.
Mirror neurons and empathy
Your brain is naturally empathetic. You have mirror neurons which trigger you to mirror behaviors and match, or at least discern, emotional reactions without thinking. These neurons exist as a part of our fundamental needs for social connection and acceptance. Mirror neurons might also be tied into our protective mechanisms; you automatically tune into people’s emotions, movements, and intentions to ensure your safety.
There is still a debate on the primary purpose of mirror neurons but the gift they give us is the potential for empathy.
Mirror neurons give you the capacity to “step into another’s shoes.” According to Dr. Keysers at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, when you see a spider crawling up someone’s leg, you feel a creepy sensation. Similarly, when you observe someone reach out to a friend and they are pushed away, your brain registers the sensation of rejection. When you watch an athlete get hurt or a couple embrace on television, you feel their emotions as if you are there. Social emotions like guilt, shame, pride, and embarrassment can be experienced by watching others.
When with others, you are also picking up emotional signals not only with your eyes, but also with your heart and gut. Your heart and gut then send signals to your brain to decipher what you sense.
However, if you are using your cognitive brain to think about the past, the future, or your email, you are not connecting to your emotional brain. You suppress your empathy to attend to a greater priority.
Steps for strengthening empathy
French philosopher Simone Weil said, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity,” To increase your empathy, you have to both control your wandering mind and strengthen your capacity to empathize through practice. Here’s how:
- Be quiet, inside and out. The more you can quiet your chattering brain, the more you can hear your empathetic response. Find moments to meditate, take walks to appreciate nature, and ground yourself by walking barefoot in the grass. You can also tune in by stopping your activity and focusing on your breath. Keep your mind empty as long as you can as you look around you. Practice observing with a quiet mind in five-minute intervals.
- Develop your emotional awareness. Practicing emotional awareness on yourself will help you empathize when you are with others. This requires you teach your brain to access and label your emotional reactions. To help learn this skill, use the Emotional Inventory where you will be asked to stop two or three times a day and pick out what emotion you are feeling from a list of possible sensations.
- When interacting with others, feel curious and ask clarifying questions. Discover what the emotion of curiosity feels like in your brain and body so you can shift to feeling curious when you are with someone. Then, when you feel curious, listen for the details of their story so you can ask questions to help see the picture of what they recall or are experiencing in the moment.
- Fully watch as well as listen. While listening to their story, notice shifts in their posture, tone of voice, facial expressions, and breathing. Just noticing these shifts will help you pick up what they are feeling.
- Catch your judgment. Judgment is also an emotion. When you feel tense or sense the urge to correct the person, breathe and shift to feeling compassion, respect, and a desire to connect. Then if you still feel the need to give a different point of view, ask for permission first to see if the person is willing to listen.
Create an empathy regimen
Take time out of your busy schedule each day to practice increasing your empathy. Commit to at least two sessions of face-to-face, other-focused listening each day you are with people. Also, spend 30 minutes a day watching people in meetings or social settings where you don’t have to talk much and see what you pick up.
Final note: Empathy is not the same as emotional contagion where you take on the emotions of another. Empathy is where you receive what another is feeling and cognitively label the emotion so you might understand. Then it is good practice to seek to understand their experience by asking if what you are sensing is correct.
As a human, you have empathy. You need to choose to be present, and willing to believe what you are sensing. Boost your empathy to strengthen your relationships and improve your coaching, leadership, and relationship skills.