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4 Ways to Increase Your Empathy

by S. RufusJune 24, 2019
Columnists
Two different woman looking at each other.

“Empathy will not heal the hurt world overnight, but can at least make life more interesting. Try these strategies.”

I can't remember living in less friendly, more divisive times. Vast population sectors hate each other on sight, by suggestion, by the slightest clothing choice, or even word suggesting what one loves or how one votes.

Has humanity ever more urgently needed empathy? 

We need never agree with those who differ from us. We need never hug or love them. But gaining even the tiniest spark of insight into how they think and feel, into what might have led them here and why, can help us see each other not as cutout-paper saints and monsters or spare parts but as whole, complex, 3D individuals with histories and, hard as it might be to see this at first, hearts.

Empathy will not heal the hurt world overnight, but can at least make life more interesting. Try these strategies:

• Imagine the whole person, not just the unpleasant side of them you're encountering now. The rude sales-clerk, the reckless driver, the loud partier—surely has a range of other, better faces and moods. And maybe is acting this way now only because they've had a really bad day: they're feeling ill, they're depressed, they've heard terrible news. Maybe some past trauma left this person struggling to cope. He or she was once an innocent infant, and almost surely has been—and might still be—loved by others. What might they see in this person that we can't see right now? 

• Take breaks from social media. Even though it's social, social media annihilates as much compassion as it sparks. Its friendships are sculpted by artificial algorithms more conniving than even the vilest human mastermind. These platforms are corporate entities designed to sell products by coaxing us to divulge personal details—rapidly, irretrievably. Half-knowing this, we construct social-media editions of ourselves: part confessional, part contrived. In this fellowship of façades, fun as it can be, we miss crucial cues and energies and instead judge each other on likes, memes and emojis alone. 

Stepping away from social media returns us to that edgy, messy realm of eye contact and vocal tone, as actual responses to actual situations help us know who those around us are and how they feel. (Click here for more tips on being a mindful consumer of news.)

• Ask questions. Is dialogue a dying art? I've noticed lately after spending hours with people, even certain friends, that they've asked me no questions—although I have asked them many, because back-and-forth polite inquiry has always seemed to me the basic mode of human synergy. 

But more and more encounters involve no questions at all. I think life lived mainly online, despite the access to knowledge and each other it offers, atrophies our interactive skills. It even kills our curiosity, if we browse only our familiar topics, people and amusements. Can we rekindle our rapport by remembering to ask: Do you prefer sunshine or rain? Why is a starfish tattooed on your hand?

• Practice with fiction. Read a novel, play or story slowly, pausing now and then to "be" each character. Eyes shut, imagine the plot as if it was happening around you in real time. What would you think, see, want, wear, fear and do right now if you were Draco Malfoy, say, or Lisbeth Salander? 

Don't limit this practice to heroes and/or characters to whom you most relate. Do it even with creepy clowns. Fiction gives us this gift: Inviting us to safely, feelingly and temporarily inhabit not just characters we love or wish we were but also those we hate and cannot—at least, at first—comprehend. It lets us immerse ourselves in their contexts and try their backstories on for size.

Life without empathy is easy, in a sense. It boosts false confidence. But it flattens our presence in a crowded world. Empathy is an act of curiosity and courage that can help us find unlikely friends.

Want more? Check out the story “A Practice to Heal Prejudice.”


S. Rufus is the author — under the byline Anneli Rufus — of several books including Unworthy: How to Stop Hating Yourself (Tarcher Penguin 2014) and continues on the path of addressing self-esteem.


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