Welcome to the Age of Empathy!
Empathy Empathic is topical at the moment and for good reason. If you think you’re hearing the word “empathy” everywhere, you’re right. Empathy is not just a way to extend the boundaries of your moral universe.
What is empathy?
It’s the ability to step into the shoes of another person, aiming to understand their feelings and perspectives, and to use that understanding to guide our actions. That makes it different from kindness or pity.
And don’t confuse it with the Golden Rule, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” As George Bernard Shaw pointed out, “do not do unto others as you would have them do unto you– they might have different tastes.” Empathy is about discovering those tastes, understanding humbly how they are different, and appreciating and accepting them.
The big buzz about empathy stems from a revolutionary shift in the science of how we understand human nature. The old view that we are essentially self-interested creatures is being nudged firmly to one side by evidence that we are also homo empathicus, wired for empathy, social cooperation, and mutual aid.
Empathy is the ability to step into the shoes of another person.Empathy is the ability to step into the shoes of another person.
The Empathetic Brain
Over the last decade, neuroscientists have identified a 10-section “empathy circuit” in our brains which, if damaged, can curtail our ability to understand what other people are feeling. Evolutionary biologists, like Frans de Waal, have shown that we are social animals who have naturally evolved to care for each other, just like our primate cousins. And psychologists have revealed that we are primed for empathy by strong attachment relationships in the first two years of life.
Empathy doesn’t stop developing in childhood. We can nurture its growth throughout our lives– and we can use it as a radical force for social transformation. Research in sociology, psychology, history reveals how we can make empathy an attitude and a part of our daily lives, and thus, improve the lives of everyone around us.
We are primed for empathy by strong attachment relationships in the first two years of life.
1 Be curious about others
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. They find other empathy empathic people more interesting than themselves but are not out to interrogate them, respecting the advice of the oral historian, Studs Terkel: “Don’t be an examiner, be the interested inquirer.”
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. And it is a useful cure for the chronic loneliness afflicting around one in three Australians.
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.
Curiosity expands our empathy when we talk to people outside our usual social circle.
2 Look for things in common instead of emphasising difference
We all have empathy empathic assumptions about others and use collective labels– e.g., “Muslim fundamentalist,” “deadbeat dad”– that prevent us from appreciating their individuality.
Highly empathic people challenge their own preconceptions and prejudices by searching for what they share with people rather than what divides them.
Too often we seek difference and look for things to set us apart when it is much more beautiful to look for the commonality among us all living with then human condition.
3: Walk a Mile in another person’s shoes
Actually living the eperience of another is a powerful experience to shift your mindset. Then you need to try experiential empathy, the most challenging– and potentially rewarding– of them all. HEPs expand their empathy by gaining a direct experience from other people’s lives, putting into practice the Native American proverb, “walk a mile in another man’s moccasins before you criticize him.”
After several years as a empathy empathic colonial police officer in British Burma in the 1920s, Orwell returned to Britain determined to discover what life was like for those living on the social margins. He dressed up as a tramp with shabby shoes and coat, and lived on the streets of East London with beggars and vagabonds.
He not only realized that homeless people are not “drunken scoundrels”– Orwell developed new friendships, shifted his views on inequality, and gathered some superb literary material. He realised that empathy doesn’t just make you good– it’s good for you, too.
We can each conduct our own experiments. Take the path favored by philosopher John Dewey, who said, “all genuine education comes about through experience.” You are always welcome to approach life coaching Sydney for a further exploration of empathy.