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Six Ideas for Inspiring Empathy

Updated on July 14, 2014

Please, Understand Me

Whenever we try to understand the feelings, pain and perceptions of another human being we are practicing empathy. Our ability to feel another's emotions falls on a spectrum and fluctuates over time. Although it may appear some of us are born with more empathy than others researchers are still determining whether it is an inherent trait or simply learned. Cognitive scientists do recognize empathy comes more naturally to some than it does to others. By taking time to genuinely create and paint a picture of what it is like for the other person and imagine ourselves in their place, we ultimately gain valuable insights, forging deeper connections to those around us.

Remember Others

We spend the majority of our lives thinking about our own needs. Be honest. Human beings are essentially self-centered and selfish creatures. We want to do what we want to do when we want to do it. If we expect children to grow into caring, empathetic adults we must begin modeling unselfish behaviors early in their lives. It doesn't take the full scale selfless volunteering at an orphanage or cooking Sunday meals for homeless veterans to have an effect either. Sometimes we forget that the smallest gestures of kindness and caring mean a great deal. Let your children witness and experience your thoughtful actions. Did you remember your grandmothers birthday and give her a phone call? Did you give a teacher a gift? Did you bring chicken soup to a sick neighbor? Did you write a thank you note to a friend or relative? Have you ever complimented a stranger or helped an elderly person with their cart at a grocery store? As a child's empathy grows because of your modeling, they'll be more able to relate deeply to others. They will see appreciation, surprise or even disappointment on the faces of strangers. They will feel and see what kindness does for others and themselves. It may create good positive feelings and emotions. Children will also grow in their ability to practice good listening skills, show gratitude, sincerely help others, and demonstrate generosity.


Volunteer Your Time

Volunteering may be the first example where we observed and felt empathy in our lives outside of our parents and siblings. Whether we are showing compassion for homeless men, women and children by raising economic awareness or cleaning cages and petting kittens at an animal rescue shelter, our ability to care deeply about the welfare of something outside of ourselves creates a flourishing space for developing empathy. Volunteering our time to others closes the distance between "us" and "them". We transcend political hierarchies and the imaginary human constructs that separate human being from human heart. We connect through suffering, loss and pain. We connect through love, joy and kindness.

Volunteering also teaches us that our time and our ability to give and receive is more important than money. Children who volunteer are more likely to become givers who grow up to become positive change makers.




“Self-absorption in all its forms kills empathy, let alone compassion. When we focus on ourselves, our world contracts as our problems and preoccupations loom large. But when we focus on others, our world expands. Our own problems drift to the periphery of the mind and so seem smaller, and we increase our capacity for connection - or compassionate action.”
― Daniel Goleman, Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships

Listen

Most of us prefer to talk. We like the sound of our own voices. We demand to be heard. But who exactly is doing all the listening? Few people realize just how difficult listening really is. It is a sign of respect. Listening shows we value others. Wisdom, patience and humility can be learned when we sincerely listen to what others are saying. We form connections. We develop bonds. We honor and acknowledge what another person is experiencing at that moment. Listening when we would much rather be the ones talking is a priceless skill. You may not have all the answers or any of the answers and that is why listening is so healing. Listening is a process rather than a product. We are hearing and understanding the predicament of another human being. Our knowledge, compassion and empathy grows as we open our hearts and our ears. Listen.

Find Common Ground

We are more alike than we are different. The world divides itself into different nations, religions, beliefs, philosophies, political groups and yet we all share common ground. Many people confuse empathy with pity or feeling sorry for other people. This is a dangerous misconception. All human beings breathe air, we all need food and water to survive, we all want to eliminate suffering and increase our own happiness. When we begin to look at all the ways we are alike rather than our differences empathy increases. It has been said that you must walk in another persons shoes to understand their life. Begin with how you are the same. Slip on anothers boots, pumps, sneakers, ballet slippers and begin the journey one step at a time but begin with your heart.

Lose Your Thoughts

Read a novel. Watch a movie. Listen to a beautiful song with moving lyrics. Most people are so absorbed with their own thoughts they can't relate to a character in a movie, play or book. However, these are incredibly useful tools for creating empathy.Get out of your own head and discover the thoughts and feelings of a character. When we allow ourselves to be immersed in a great story we are taking on the perspective of another person, place or thing. We are a different gender, race, nationality have a novel ideology or belong to a different time. As the author takes us on an exciting adventure their words are describing an entirely new viewpoint from our own. Did you dream of flying magically through the air as Harry Potter at Hogwarts? Did you try to imagine the unbearable suffering of a concentration camp when reading Elie Wiesel's Night? We may become so emotionally caught up when we read and watch movies that we cry, laugh or feel the joy of another. The act of trying to imagine what someone else is feeling is actually increasing our own awareness. We are creating empathy.

“I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person.” -Walt Whitman, Song of Myself

Feel Your Own Emotions

You need to get in touch and feel your own emotions before you can truly empathize with others. At some level you must know sorrow, grief, pain, suffering, happiness, emptiness, boredom, rage, arrogance. Love. You must allow yourself to feel the full spectrum of human emotions and feel them fully and deeply. When you are sad, connect with the sadness. Allow yourself to weep. Where is the sadness coming from? Did someone say something mean to you? Did you recall a sad memory? What makes you happy? What makes you feel joy? Who or what makes you angry? Do other people share your anger? Can you connect with others based on that single shared emotion? It's only when we allow ourselves to feel what we are really feeling that we can understand and absorb the emotions of others. Relating to anothers emotions creates empathy.

“The great gift of human beings is that we have the power of empathy, we can all sense a mysterious connection to each other.”
― Meryl Streep

How do you inspire empathy in yourself and others?

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  • LKMore01 profile image
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    LKMore01 3 years ago

    manatita44,

    Thank you so much for taking the time to read and comment. Your complement sincerely warms my heart. Peace to you.

  • manatita44 profile image

    manatita44 3 years ago from london

    Immortal truths: Empathy, selfless service, communication, oneness. A profound heart indeed! May you continue to reach and inspire us. Higher blessings!!

  • LKMore01 profile image
    Author

    LKMore01 3 years ago

    Thank you so much for reading and commenting, Imogen. Your feedback is greatly appreciated.

  • Imogen French profile image

    Imogen French 3 years ago from Southwest England

    This is a lovely hub, empathy is much under-rated, but you have described its importance and value to society very nicely here. Your point about demonstrating empathy to children is important too, they learn by example, and go on to become great caring citizens.

  • LKMore01 profile image
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    LKMore01 4 years ago

    Thank you so much, Crafty. There are assumptions I make on a daily basis about human beings, in so far as believing they can't be as awful as they seem. But they are. Despite that knowledge, reading inspiring stories and articles by caring people like YOU restores my faith in humanity.

  • CraftytotheCore profile image

    CraftytotheCore 4 years ago

    Beautiful Hub! I remember a couple of years ago a young man at a school where I volunteered told me about his sister being quite ill. I offered to stop by their home with a casserole. He had never heard of such a thing and thought I was strange to even offer. A time ago, it was the "in" thing to do.

  • LKMore01 profile image
    Author

    LKMore01 4 years ago

    Thank you, Liz. That is a valuable and true statement.

  • epbooks profile image

    Elizabeth Parker 4 years ago from Las Vegas, NV

    Great ideas- especially about volunteering and listening. Often we only think about what we want to say, rather than truly listen. So nice to read!

  • LKMore01 profile image
    Author

    LKMore01 4 years ago

    R.Q,

    Even your comments are poetry.

    "Each immarcescible contemplation, carrying the potential to change anothers' world; each act, like a ripple in time which has the innate ability to resound throughout an imperishable eternity; indeed, empathy, the seed of motivation to activate loving-kindness as oil in the machinery of anothers life, to elevate them, and elate oneself with an uncommon and singular joy."

    What a beautiful summary R.Q. You definition of empathy is really lovely and poetic. As always, thank you so much for your support.

  • LKMore01 profile image
    Author

    LKMore01 4 years ago

    Thank you, Joe. One of the many things I love about your writing is that you give ALL of you. Even in your comments you openly and honestly admit your shortcomings and mistakes. How many of us can do this? Self-examination takes courage and humility. We are all constantly learning and evolving and those writers like yourself, Joe who can so eloquently share hard won lessons are truly gifted and fascinating. Thank you so much for your support and for all of the wisdom , laughter and tears you share with us everyday. Aloha and peace, my friend.

  • LKMore01 profile image
    Author

    LKMore01 4 years ago

    Thank you so much for reading and commenting, Flourish. Empathy may be the only way we can even think about resolving conflict between nations and people. Appreciate you stopping by.

  • Romeos Quill profile image

    Romeos Quill 4 years ago from Lincolnshire, England

    Each immarcescible contemplation, carrying the potential to change anothers' world; each act, like a ripple in time which has the innate ability to resound throughout an imperishable eternity; indeed, empathy, the seed of motivation to activate loving-kindness as oil in the machinery of anothers life, to elevate them, and elate oneself with an uncommon and singular joy.

    Great Hub article Lisa; pinning.

    Best Wishes,

    R.Q.

  • hawaiianodysseus profile image

    Hawaiian Odysseus 4 years ago from Southeast Washington state

    Dear Lisa, this is the kind of hub that is timely and evergreen. My heart was moved by the section about listening. With my own loved ones, my inability to constructively listen has been an area of concern.

    No excuse whatsoever, but sometimes I think intelligence gets in the way of listening well. By this, I mean environmental stimuli that trigger creative thoughts can get in the way of what's right in front of an individual. The more complex civilization gets--think electronic gadgetry, for example--the more ADD or ADHD cases climb.

    Jokes are made all the time about husbands who don't listen, and I've managed to use that crutch a lot in my adult life. But after reading your article, I really get that listening well is an important way to learn and exemplify true empathy. Thank you so much for pointing this out to me.

    On the plus side, my wife and I visit and sing to elderly at the local nursing homes and other adult care facilities each Saturday afternoon. I experience a range of emotions during those sessions that I bring to my writing, especially when I wax nostalgic for my parents and siblings who live far away.

    You have such a wonderful and extensive range as a writer, Lisa. I always enjoy your work. As one fellow writer to another, you make me proud! : )

    Aloha, and have a terrific Sunday and a memorable week full of environmental stimuli, the fodder for a talented writer!

    ~Joe

  • FlourishAnyway profile image

    FlourishAnyway 4 years ago from USA

    These are beautiful ideas for connecting with one another so that we can appreciate their experience. No matter who we are, we all have the desire to be understood. Kindness goes a long way. You never know what someone is going through.

  • LKMore01 profile image
    Author

    LKMore01 4 years ago

    Thank you for providing some very insightful comments, kidcrafts. We should all consider how we use technology. Like all things it can used as a powerful source for change/good or avoidance and distance. Thank you once again. Peace to you always.

  • kidscrafts profile image

    kidscrafts 4 years ago from Ottawa, Canada

    Excellent hub, LKMore! The world can for sure use more empathy! It seems that with technology, people become more and more absorbed in their own little world instead of opening toward others. We all can benefit of giving at least a little bit of ourselves. As individuals, we each have talents can benefit one way or another to someone else. People have to have more compassion.

    Thank you for sharing this beautiful hub!

    Voted up and beautiful!

  • LKMore01 profile image
    Author

    LKMore01 4 years ago

    Faith Reaper, thank you so much for your truly insightful and inspiring comments. Indeed the world would be a better place if we would show more kindness.

    suzette,

    Thank you so much for reading and commenting.

  • suzettenaples profile image

    Suzette Walker 4 years ago from Taos, NM

    Wonderful article and you make such valid points. There is not enough empathy, putting oneself in another's shoes, in this world today. It is in short supply and something that we need more of. Thank you for a thought-provoking article on how to acquire some empathy.

  • Faith Reaper profile image

    Faith Reaper 4 years ago from southern USA

    Very beautiful hub and the world could us a lot more empathy from each and every person. When our heart know how to love, it is a beautiful thing to watch in action. This world could be a much more beautiful place if each day we would show a little kindness to others along the way.

    Up and more and sharing

    God bless,

    Faith Reaper

  • LKMore01 profile image
    Author

    LKMore01 4 years ago

    From one who feels, loves and understands so much, Bill, your comment and kindness mean the world to me. Thank you.

  • billybuc profile image

    Bill Holland 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

    You are speaking my language here dear lady. Oh if we could only increase empathy in this world, and turn cold hearts warm with love and understanding. Why is this such a hard lesson for some to learn? Have we really forgotten our humanity in society? I hope not.

    Thank you for adding to the beauty of the world.

    bill

  • LKMore01 profile image
    Author

    LKMore01 4 years ago

    Thank you for reading, commenting and beautifully clarifying an important definition of what empathy truly encompasses. Peace to you always, Vinaya.

  • Vinaya Ghimire profile image

    Vinaya Ghimire 4 years ago from Nepal

    Empathy is an expression of identifying oneself with the problems of the sufferer so completely that he or she experiences similar feelings and states of mind, including a sense of sadness, personal loss or betrayal.

    Thanks for sharing great ideas.

  • LKMore01 profile image
    Author

    LKMore01 4 years ago

    Thank you so much for reading and commenting, Rajan.

  • rajan jolly profile image

    Rajan Singh Jolly 4 years ago from From Mumbai, presently in Jalandhar,INDIA.

    Wonderful ideas and as you mention I truly feel that unless one feels the entire gamut of emotions deeply himself, one cannot empathise completely.

    Great hub.

    Voted up and useful.