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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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