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Book Review: The Empathy Effect

7 Neuroscience-Based Keys for Transforming the Way We Live, Love, Work, and Connect Across Differences

by Helen Riess MDSounds True
reviewed by Kathryn Drury Wagner
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The Empathy Effect book cover

“Empathy is informed by biology, society, personal beliefs, and experience, which means everyone has unique reasons for the softening or hardening of their hearts,” writes Helen Riess in her excellent new book exploring empathic behavior. She has really good news for us: Empathy is not inherent but can be learned, improved on, and taught to others. Dr. Riess is associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and cofounder and chief scientist for Empathetics LLC, and her training materials are used globally in the health care, business, and education fields. 

In The Empathy Effect, she shares her insights with laypeople, exploring empathy in a variety of contexts, from schools to the digital/screen realm and the arts, and teaches the reader the “Seven Keys of E.M.P.A.T.H.Y.” For example, “E” stands for eye contact, T for tone of voice, etc. Throughout, she bolsters this with the neurological underpinnings of why we react the way we do—and how we can do it better. I especially benefited from the chapter on Self-Empathy, which is offering yourself not only indulgence or a free pass, but compassion and support. She also includes a section on using empathy in situations where it can get really challenging, such as with addiction issues, the mentally ill, and autism. 

Throughout, the author will convince you that empathy makes for better managers, better parents, better soccer coaches, better doctors—pretty much every interpersonal transaction can be improved on once we get in touch with our shared humanity. The Empathy Effect couldn’t have come out at a better time, since the skills Riess teaches can perhaps help alter the rampant tribalism that is crippling American society. —Kathryn Drury Wagner


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