Does your heart ache for the victims? Can you imagine how these people might be feeling and what they might be going through?
If so, you’re feeling empathy, defined as the ability to sense what someone else is feeling, thinking, and experiencing, from their point of view rather than our own, and feel what they’re feeling.
As stated by Matthieu Ricard, the Buddhist monk who has been called “the happiest man on earth”, “Empathy is the faculty to resonate with the feelings of others. When we meet someone who is joyful, we smile. When we witness someone in pain, we suffer in resonance with his or her suffering.”
Our ability to empathize enriches our personal relationships. When we can understand what other people are experiencing, we’re able to connect with them and really peer into their world. The other person is likely to feel accepted as they are, as they explore and clarify where they stand on an issue. Through practicing empathy, we also improve our ability to identify emotions in ourselves.
Empathy is about meeting someone where they currently are. People need to know that we get and appreciate where they’re at, and that this registers with us on an emotional as well as a cognitive level, before we move into comforting, encouraging, or giving advice to them.
Yes, our very presence and attunement with the other person can be immensely comforting, but we refrain from saying things such as, “it’s going to be okay.” After all, how do we know that to be true?
While some people may naturally be more empathetic than others (for instance, narcissists tend to be deficient), various factors influence our level of empathy. For instance, studies have shown that we tend to feel more empathy for people we consider similar to ourselves, and towards people who we believe to be acting ethically.
In addition, research has demonstrated that even short-term training in compassion and memory training can help us to regulate our empathic responses to other people.
How to practice empathy:
- Ask someone how they’re doing, and truly watch and listen to their verbal and non-verbal response. Remember that a person’s body language and tone of voice often tell the true story.
- If the person says that they’re “fine” or “okay,” or some such short or vague response, inquire further with something such as, “No, really, how are you?”
- Involve your heart and intuition as well as your head – empathy is soulful.
- Be single-focused. Don’t multi-task. Put away your phone. Make eye contact. Face the other person in an open posture (don’t cross your arms).
- Pay attention to what the person’s words and feelings mean to them and let them gradually arrive at their own truth, rather than giving your opinion.
- Keep the focus on the other person. Don’t shift gears to what you would do in a similar situation.
- Acknowledge what the other person is saying as well as the associated feelings. You could do this by paraphrasing what you feel they’ve conveyed to you, such as, “You had really wanted this job to work out, and now that you’ve been let go, you’re disappointed and also concerned about making ends meet.” Get a sense from the other person as to whether or not you understand where they’re coming from.
- Remember that validating the other person’s viewpoint does not necessarily mean that you agree with them.
- Develop curiosity about other people. Consider what their past experiences might have been, why they might have adopted certain habits and ways of being, and what they might want most in their lives. In other words, mentally and psychologically walk a mile in their shoes. Read fictional novels with rich character development, to practice having points of views other than your own. Mentally enter into the worlds and perspectives of people with lives that are vastly different to yours.
- Strike up conversations with strangers, for example, people who might be standing in line with you at the grocery store. Show curiosity and learn something about them. Also, notice if the other person doesn’t seem inclined to chat, as this too teaches you empathy for their feelings.
- Broaden your social circle to develop a sense of “we-ness” with many different types of people. Refrain from making snap judgments or falling prey to stereotyping. Consider the similarities rather than the differences between you and other people.
- Notice your own emotional and bodily responses to what you’re learning from the other person. Does your heart rate speed up? Do you feel exhilarated? Weighed down? Be a compassionate witness to your own experience.
- Practice focusing on what’s going on around you (sights, sounds, etc.) as you go about your day, rather than being preoccupied with your internal world. Pay attention to people, buildings, cars, parks, whatever you encounter. Play the part of a compassionate detective who is gathering information.
- Look into volunteer opportunities in your community. So many people need assistance, and by lending a helping hand you can learn more about segments of the population you might not otherwise have considered.
By honing your empathy skills, you can be a soothing and healing presence in a world that desperately needs more demonstrations of compassion and kindness.