How Empathy Works

How to Increase Empathic Feelings
Colorado author Patricia Raybon shows photograph of her and her daughter Alana Raybon who lives in Nashville, Tennessee, in 2015. The two wrote a book, 'Undivided,' about how they healed their relationship after Alana converted to Islam from her Christian upbringing. Cyrus McCrimmon/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Empathy is important. Critical, really. It's what makes us human and able to have healthy relationships. And while some people might not possess as much empathy as others, we all can learn to become more empathic. Research shows our brains possess neuroplasticity, or the ability to change and adapt, through training and conscious practices [source: LaBier]. Here are a few techniques that can help us develop more empathy:

First, start listening to people. Really listening. When someone is spilling their guts to you, don't interrupt. Hear what they're saying, perhaps even rephrase what they told you back to them. This can be extremely helpful when the other person simply needs someone to listen to them — say, if their spouse just moved out — and also in cases of conflict [source: Krznaric].

Next, start noticing others and thinking about their lives. Take your garbage collector, boss or veterinarian. What do you think their jobs are like? How was their childhood? Is anything stressful going on in their lives right now? Ponder all of the ways these people are probably just like you: They want a loving family and steady job. They have hopes and dreams. They've suffered disappointments.

Extend these thoughts to strangers, and then reach out to a few. If you strike up a conversation with your supermarket clerk, you might discover she's struggling with an infant who isn't sleeping through the night — and that might make you less likely to become angry if she incorrectly rings up your order.

One of the hardest situations in which to stir up empathy is when you encounter someone you don't get along with. But it can be done. Focus on your commonalities; this person likely has a family that's not perfect, a job that can be trying and dreams for the future. Then try to imagine why you two don't mesh. Try to see yourself from his point of view.

If you realize you have a lot of negativity toward people from another country or culture, or who are very different than you, try to engage with them. Listen to their stories, and you will hear echoes of your own. Once you can focus on your shared humanity, and the world as an interwoven community, empathy grows. And from there, so do tolerance, acceptance and respect — the necessities for a happy life, and a world that survives and thrives.

Author's Note: How Empathy Works

I'm a pretty empathic person, if you can measure that in tears. I cry at pretty much any really happy or sad event, if it's happening to someone I don't know at all. So it was chilling to learn about the racial empathy gap. I'd like to think I'd react the same to seeing anyone pricked by a needle, no matter the color of their skin, but maybe I wouldn't. It's good to know, then, that I can train my brain to be more empathic. I will begin doing that right away.

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