Six ways to improve your empathy

How to improve your empathy
Image: @annaremarchuk

Empathy is about caring for your loved ones, developing emotionally and so much more. Carl Rogers, one of the founders of humanistic psychology, advocated for an empathic lifestyle. As a practising psychotherapist, Rogers highlighted that empathic understanding is dynamic in character, meaning that it can be learnt through a deliberate and dedicated practice.

We dive into some of the methods that can help you become a more compassionate, conscious and, ultimately, happy person.

1/ Show your vulnerability

The first steps to practicing a successful, appropriate and safe kind of empathy is to start with ourselves. Empathy that does not turn into emotional servicing of others is referred to by Carl Rogers as congruence. It is a person’s ability to get in touch with their own feelings and express them sincerely.

According to Rogers, in any situation it is much more constructive to be real than pseudo-empathic, wearing a mask of either excessive tranquillity or care. Congruent empathy means being able to face others as a real person with your own difficulties, with your own mood swings and emotions. It is about not being afraid of showing your vulnerability.

Modern psychologists would add that it is important to express your feelings through an “I-statement”, where we share our own worries as opposed to “You-statements”, where we seemingly accuse the other person. Replace “you have hurt me” with “these words are making me feel neglected”.

Talk, rather than argue
Image: @annaremarchuk

2/ Small acts of kindness

When you are stressed out or feel like you have no energy, spend some of the resources you do have either in the form of time, energy or money on someone else. “Nature did not create us for solitude,” says Professor Elizabeth Capers from King’s College London. “We are socially oriented beings. We feel better, when we can socialise.”

By trying to preserve the energy for ourselves, we tend to clam up. This can be very hurtful to others. It might seem illogical but small acts of kindness towards others can truly invigorate, inspire and boost our ability to empathise.

Send a text message with words of support or a funny picture to someone who is struggling right now. On your way home, pick up your partner’s favourite coffee. Hold the door for someone carrying big bags. Make it a habit not just to thank people for something they have done for you but to remark on their kindness and empathy towards others.

3/ Be inquisitive

Emotional empathy exists alongside cognitive empathy. It is not just about feeling but also about analysing what others experience. It is founded on a curiosity towards the emotional state of others, a well thought through and motivated desire to understand what it is like to be in their shoes. While emotional empathy is biologically determined, the cognitive kind functions due to the fact that by changing the way we think, we change the way we feel.

One of the ways to train this ability is to surround yourself with a diverse range of people, be it in a debate club or at your nearest bus stop. Using the non-verbal cues signalled by others, try to imagine what that woman on the tube might be thinking about, or why that man is looking grumpy, is he angry or is he upset? Spend some time observing and consider the emotions and thoughts that might be stimulating the actions of others. In other words, use your imagination.

It is helpful to see your loved ones from a new side. Perhaps, you never noticed your partner’s habit of biting their lip when they feel unsure or never realised that your friend holds her elbows every time she wants to talk about something important. By slowing down a bit we can concentrate on the person in front of us and tune into what is going on for them.

Small acts of kindness
Image: @annaremarchuk

4/ Talk, rather than argue

Next time you are about to embark on a blind argument or accuse someone of anything, speak to them instead. Tolstoy once wrote: “More often than not, we argue so passionately only because we fail to understand what the opponent is trying to prove.” Tell them about what made you arrive at your viewpoint, what values or life events stand behind it, then listen as your opponent shapes their story. The aforementioned I-statement from the first exercise works perfectly here.

The purpose of this exercise is to show that you can disagree with another person without the feelings of hostility or thinking of them as your enemy. “Empathy is not condescension, but can indicate understanding,” explains doctor Jamil Zaki, Stanford University Professor and author of “The War for Kindness: Building empathy in a fractured world”.

Understanding is a realisation of what the other person has experienced, it is a mutual acceptance of each other’s needs, fears and hopes. Perhaps, this state of mutual understanding brings more satisfaction than proving that you are right in a debate. It will also help set the foundations for mutual support.

5/ Accept the emotions of others

In a 1964 lecture at the California Institute of Technology Carl Rogers highlighted the fact that even in an empathic state we should try and feel control over the feelings of another person. Often when we find someone feeling sad next to us, one of the natural impulses is to fix it. Instead, just be with this person in whatever state they are in right now.

Rogers believed that a person whose experience is wholeheartedly valued will feel better than the one who is being “fixed”. In his opinion, empathy means a temporary co-experience of the life of another person, it is an act of treading carefully and sensitively through it, without judging the things the other person might not even be aware of.

To feel for someone is to not criticise or judge but to resonate and react. We do not try to change the experience of others or give advice on how they can improve it. We are ready to validate others’ emotions without diminishing them. So, do not be afraid to clarify with the other person how exactly they might like to be supported. For every person the idea of immediate psychological help would mean something different. Some might need emotional support, while some need advice and an exact solution to a problem and others still might simply want a hug.

Accept the emotions of others
Image: @annaremarchuk

6/ Actively listen to others

It follows from our previous point that empathy and help very much depend on the ways we interact with others’ emotions, leading to very different results. And there are certain things that simply cannot be ignored. First of all, it is a fact that every person needs an opportunity to vent.

Dr Melanie Joy notes that many relationships come to an end because someone has not put enough effort in to hearing the other person out when they were really shaken, depleted or trying to communicate their misfortunes and needs. Active listening and listening with understanding - when you ask questions and clarify the information you receive - helps people feel seen and heard. This is a simple and effective method for practicing empathy.

In conclusion

Do not expect for your empathy to change others. We can develop the skill of compassion but we need not make it our goal to change other people. Remember that your relationship to the suffering of others (or your own) can be destructive, especially if you are prone to emotional kind of empathy. According to psychologist Paul Bloom, “empathy will have to yield to reason, if humanity is to have a future”.

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