Empathy is another way to kill negativity. Because most of us are fundamentally self-interested, we oversimplify things and undervalue them.
Becoming a more empathetic person makes you more understanding, more grateful, less negative, and therefore more creative.
The secret to empathy is not imagining what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes. Because all that does is put you in their shoes. It’s them in their shoes that we need to understand, not you in their shoes.
When you prescribe simple solutions to people’s problems, that’s mistakenly putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. For example, when someone is overweight, a typical response to the situation may be to think: “just exercise more and stop eating McDonalds!” Because that’s what you would do.
But that person is not you. They might have had a lifetime of being put down; they might have low or non-existent self-esteem; they might not even understand the value of healthy food; they might have tried to join the gym 10 times and failed every time. You don’t really know their circumstances, but you assume you know their situation, because we assume everyone is like us.
You need to first accept that you really don’t know what it’s like to be someone other than yourself. Once you accept that, you won’t be as quick to judge. You will be more likely to listen and observe and try to understand people better.
Empathy is an extremely difficult skill to master because no one lives inside someone else’s body and mind. But there are things you can do to improve it:
1. Start from this simple place: You are a self-interested human being. Everything you see, you apply your own context to. But everyone else is also self-interested, and they apply their context to everything. Admit that: “I actually don’t understand anyone unless I make an attempt to understand them.”
2. Don’t rush into responses and don’t rush to judgment.
3. The next time you see someone driving fast, don’t be so quick to judge assume you know everything about that person and why they are doing it. If you can judge people less, you can understand people better.
4. Notice empathy in others. Most people don’t have a lot of empathy, but some people do. If you can notice it when you see it, you are more likely to improve your own skills. Notice people who are curious, who don’t just talk about themselves but eagerly want to hear about others.
5. Spend more time in person with friends, customers, and business colleagues. It’s very easy to make snap judgments online and forget about the people behind the status updates. Spending more time in person cuts through it all and helps you to remember and really understand the individual.
6. Don’t talk as much. During a conversation, listen more and ask open questions. People will fill in the gaps with their own words, and you’ll learn more about them and focus less on yourself.
7. Create more things. It’s very easy to judge someone else for something they made if you don’t ever create anything for yourself. The more you create, the more you will understand what people go through while putting their ideas out into the world. Ultimately, you’ll be less quick to judge.
8. Realize that empathy and sympathy are not the same thing. Saying, “oh, you poor thing,” doesn’t make someone feel like they’ve been heard. Instead, take your time and really try to understand how it might feel to be that person. Sympathy could even make it worse. Avoid amplifying the grief of others by dwelling on their suffering. They don’t want grief; they didn’t ask for it. It’s not about you.
9. Being overly optimistic can actually hurt empathy. If you are feeling down about something, and your loved ones are just saying, “it’s great, you are awesome,” the outcome can be the opposite to what was intended. It will make you feel like the person isn’t really understanding, and it will kill communication. If a person is down about something, pretending everything is amazing is the opposite of empathy. It doesn’t mean dwelling on their negativity, it just means listening.
10. The next time you are in a conversation, stop yourself from talking unless you have to. Not interrupting will help you understand what it’s like to go into a conversation with no agenda and with your full attention on actually listening to the other person. Don’t make any sympathetic noises such as ‘oooooh’ or ‘yeah’ or ‘right’ (another reason in person conversations are best). Instead, just ask the occasional question if the silence is unbearable. Empathy is about listening. The more you talk, the less you are listening.
11. Learn to become a better listener and communicator. Reading books on communication or doing training in communication will make you notice when you are acting with judgment as opposed to empathy.
12. What about the idea of Difficult Empathy Problems (DEP)? Don’t just feel empathy for people who are very much like you. What if you challenged yourself to feel empathy for people who you really struggled to understand? What about feeling empathy for people filled with hate?
13. Practice reading other people’s emotions. What do you notice about the body language, their speed of talking, their eyes, their words? The more you can understand how people express emotions, the more you will understand other people.