A couple of weeks ago I asked members of my group on Facebook about parents’ superpowers they would like to have most. I made a short survey and one of the most popular answers was the “Emotional X-ray”. It appears that most of the parents in the group want to be able to know what their family members feel. And feeling what others feel is the definition of empathy.
What is empathy?
Empathy is the ability to sense other people’s emotions and imagine what other people might be feeling or thinking. It is vital for social interactions from the earliest ages. There are three types of empathy: emotional, cognitive, and compassionate.
Emotional empathy indicates feeling another person’s feelings. This happens because of our mirror neurons, which fire when we see someone’s behavior and can relate to that behavior.
Cognitive empathy means imagining and understanding another person’s emotions. It has more to do with our intellect than heart and may make you seem a bit disconnected. It is useful in business and negotiations, though.
Compassionate empathy encloses both feeling another person’s emotions and understanding them with the mind accompanied by the urge to bring help. It allows you not to get overflowed with emotions while still being present and of assistance. This is the most balanced kind of empathy. Only when we feel another person’s emotions and understand why that person is feeling that way we can truly speak of having the superpower of Emotional X-ray.
Why is empathy important?
Socially speaking, empathy leads to creating helping behaviors. In the past, these behaviors allowed for the survival of our species and now are very important socially. Thanks to being eager to help we build social connections with others. It increases cooperation and forgiveness while decreasing aggression and judgment. Without empathy, we wouldn’t be able to live with other people as we would constantly feel used or fight over everything.
Psychologically speaking, empathy allows us to experience feelings we wouldn’t be able to otherwise, e.g. when we read books or watch movies. We empathize with the characters, which is one of the reasons why reading to young children helps them master their own emotions. Thanks to empathy we regulate our own emotions and that way we improve both our mental and physical health.
How can I develop empathy?
Luckily for all aspiring superparents, empathy or the emotional X-ray can be developed. There is a number of ways we can work on becoming more empathetic. Here are some ideas:
Talk to people, be curious
Many empaths are very outgoing people who enjoy getting into conversations. They find it easy to start a chat with a stranger and are genuinely curious about other people and their perspectives.
Listen for emotions
One of the reasons for the empathy crisis we have is that we forget about listening when we talk. We only focus on pushing our words through and don’t really pay attention to the interlocutor’s message. In order to develop empathy, we need to learn active listening.
Put away your phone and other distractors
It is not only impolite to use your phone while talking to someone, but it just makes it extremely hard for the message to get through. If you really want to learn what the other person wants to tell you, you need to focus on that.
Learn to be quiet
Most of us are quite uncomfortable when it gets quiet during a conversation. Silence makes us uneasy and we want to fill it with words, even if we don’t have much to tell. However, we cannot listen when it’s noisy. Getting comfortable with silence is an important step in learning this vital skill.
Notice body language
Our emotions are conveyed in the discrete movements, mimicks, the tone of our voice, etc. Once we start noticing these subtle signs, we will find out about another person’s emotional states more easily.
Focus on intent and emotions
In interpersonal communication, it seems to me that emotions and how we speak are more important than the actual facts that are conveyed. It is the emotions that make us want to listen to that person. It is the emotions that make us want to do something after listening. Be that give them a hug, try to save the planet, or buy another dress.
Try someone else’s life
It is invaluable, if you want to develop empathy, not only to try on somebody else’s shoes but to walk in them. Try submerging in a different culture. This way you can learn to understand other people better.
There is a lesson in every book. Sometimes it’s small. Sometimes it’s life-changing. But it’s always there. While reading a book, you always develop (even if it’s “I need to choose my next book better”, it’s still learning). When we read, we always, to a larger or smaller extent, identify with the characters or the author, and that way we develop empathy.
Acknowledge your biases
We are all biased. There is always a group of people you have some preconceptions about. These preconceptions make it more difficult for you to be empathetic towards these people. If you learn and acknowledge your biases, think of reasons, why you have them, what events created them, you may be able to overcome them and become more empathetic in the end.
Well-developed empathy should lead to pro-social behaviors. If you feel someone needs help, just do it. On everyday basis, with our friends and family, usually just listening or giving a hug is enough. If you feel you can do more, there are always people in need.
All in all…
Empathy is the glue that keeps people together. Without empathy, we wouldn’t be able to create any social relations. Yet somehow we lose our inborn ability to sense other people’s emotions and forget the pro-social course of action. The good news is it’s never too late to learn to be more empathetic. All it takes is to be more mindful and attentive towards our own and other people’s emotions.