7 Ways to Nurture Empathy in Your Life

Empathy can be the path for social change in the world!

Aug 25, 2019

People are hardwired to be empathetic. We have relationships with other people and interact with others, at school, at work and in our communities. But, with the advent of the internet, airplanes and global commerce, the world has become much smaller and much more connected. We have more and more people to feel empathy for.

But what exactly is empathy? According to Roman Krznaric, Ph.D., a founding faculty member of The School of Life in London and empathy adviser to the UN, empathy is "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." Here's how:

Be Open to Meeting New People

The first way is to be open and interested in the people around you. "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," said Krznaric.

So, chat with the person behind you in line at Starbucks, or sitting on a park bench, but not just about the weather. Find out what makes that person tick. We can expand empathy when we talk with new people who we have never met before.

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Start Young

While empathy is usually thought of on an individual level. Children are not born prejudiced and are inclined to care about others. Just watch a children comfort a classmate who is hurt on the playground during recess. One way to nurture emapathy is through the Canadian based Roots of Empathy education program. Babies are brought into classrooms to teach children empathy towards others.

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Challenge your Prejudices

We have to put aside our own biases and try to see what unites us rather than what divides us. We all have assumptions about other people, and we are quick to label them as the other. Thinking of people as "welfare mom", “illegal immigrant" or "homeless" makes it difficult to get to know them or care about them. Krznaric said that to cultivate empathy we have to stop using labels and start to focus on things you share with other people. Things like we both live in Boston; we both take the subway or go to the same coffee shop in the morning.

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Walk in Another Persons Shoes

Sometimes our lifestyles are so ingrained that anyone who lives differently becomes suspect. Krznaric said that we gain empathy by gaining direct experience of someone else's life. Take a volunteer vacation in a developing nation, help feed the homeless in a soup kitchen, go to an interfaith service or attend a service of a faith that is different from yours. Anything that allows you to experience the lives of people that are different from you can help you cultivate empathy.

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Really Listen

The key to becoming more empathetic is to really listen to someone in a concept called radical listening where are fully present and hear what the other person has to say without interrupting or formulating a response in our minds while they are still talking. Radical listening is a real exchange of ideas. Sometimes we have to remove the walls we build and let others in.

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Inspire Social Change

While empathy is usually thought of on an individual level,empathetic people understand that empathy can also be a mass movement that can bring about real change like the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Krznaric proposes that just as social media is being used to spread social divisiveness, it can also be used to grow empathy by creating spaces were empathy can flourish and convince us to care deeply about the suffering of others.

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Develop Social Tolerance

The final trait of HEPs, according to Krznaric, is that they empathize with more than just the usual concerns. We all care about people who are suffering like earthquake victims or sick children but that is not enough. We have to empathize with people that we perceive as opponents or even as “enemies”. Understanding people who we disagree is the route to social tolerance. 

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BONNIE RIVA RAS, EDITOR & WRITER
Bonnie Riva Ras has dedicated her life to promoting social justice. She loves to write about empowering women, helping children, educational innovations, and advocating for the environment & sustainability.

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