As the car slowed down to a stop in the late night traffic, I could tell many thoughts were swirling around in my friend’s head. What went from her venting about a usual problem evolved into a full blown discussion around empathy. And it ended with her having a whole new perspective to an important relationship in her life.
This was not the first time I saw someone’s empathy develop before my eyes. But situations like those always make me wonder what someone can do to develop empathy in others. If you need reasons for why empathy is important, know that there are major implications in both sales and leadership.
While there are no surefire algorithms to create empathy in another person, here are some ways you can boost the chances of that happening.
Start From Neutral
While it may seem obvious that you should have a high enough level of empathy before helping others with theirs, this actually isn’t the first step.
In a Max Planck study, researchers tested participants’ capacity for empathy as they were exposed to different situations. Participants were in teams of two. As they experienced similar stimuli, they could relate to each other easily. However, when one participant underwent an unpleasant stimuli while the other one underwent a pleasant one, their capacity for empathy dropped.
Our emotional states have a major impact on how we interact with others. In order to help someone else expand their perspective of others, we need to manage ourselves so that we start from neutral. If we are too far off in either end of the spectrum, our emotions will color our perspectives.
Curiosity Is Key
One of the best tips I learned to put myself in a state of empathy is to be curious. When you are truly curious, you’re not projecting your own perspective onto someone else. What I mean by being truly curious is not having an agenda.
An example of that is if you were curious about something because you want to prove the other person wrong. In that scenario, confirmation bias will kick in and you’ll latch onto the one fact that your perspective could use to prove you were right.
So the next time someone seems to stuck in their own perspective to understand what someone else is going through, ask them to conjure up what-if scenarios. Encourage their curiosity when they start to expand their awareness. Maybe sprinkle in a couple of ideas of your own.
You can consider this a success once you get someone else to reconsider that their initial perspective isn’t the only answer. That’s the beginning of empathy.
How Did You Develop Your Empathy?
Unless you were born an empath, you developed empathy in your own way. While you can’t always make someone else experience what you did, you can still take the essential elements of how you practice empathy and show others how to apply them.
This can be very effective because you somehow managed to get out of your own head. Take a minute to appreciate how big that is. Your current perspective is created from a combination of thoughts, feelings and past experiences. As they are reinforced over time, they become automatic and turn into unconscious habits.
How did you break the habit of being too much in your own head? What stories or methods got you to start considering other perspectives? Once you became aware of other perspectives, how did you continue to practice empathy?
For me, a great mentor explained empathy like this. Who I am is a culmination of all my experiences. Unless I somehow experienced everything someone else went through in their lives, I can never assume how they are truly feeling.
And that was how I got my friend to reconsider her perspective.
Beware the Dark Side
Empathy is not always amazing. While you help others with their empathy, you should note there is a limit.
A study earlier this year explored two different routes to empathy. The first way is acknowledging another person’s perspective while the second way is to take on that other person’s feelings as your own.
The results were that the second way had a significantly higher stress response. Many people, especially empaths, think of empathy as the second way, where we place ourselves in the shoes of others. This can be very helpful at times, such as when this CEO switched his job with others. But in cases when you are frequently exposed to difficult situations, you could burn yourself out.
The first way of acknowledging and respecting another’s feelings is the kind of empathy we want to develop in others. Even if we try to put ourselves into other’s shoes, we can never fully replicate how they felt because we haven’t lived their lives. So be careful about which empathy you’re developing in others.
With the above tips in mind, you won’t suddenly become an expert in helping others develop empathy. But now you’re better equipped to open up new doors for others and nudge them towards a wider horizon. Best of luck.