By Sarah Jeanne Browne—
“Nothing is more important than empathy for another human being’s suffering. Nothing. Not a career, not wealth, not intelligence, certainly not status. We have to feel for one another if we’re going to survive with dignity.” ~Audrey Hepburn
Empathy is the one way a person can step into another person’s shoes and see from their perspective. It gives us hope and meaning. It helps us solve problems. It makes our world happier and healthier. It is what moves people to act. And it is what is most needed now.
Know What Empathy Means
Did you know newborns experience the precursor of empathy? When they hear other newborns cry, they become distressed. According to Positive Psychology, infants feel concern for others but still have difficulty regulating their own emotions. Toddlers develop empathy in sharing, apologizing and helping others. In early childhood, kids start to imagine how others feel. As we grow up, empathy develops more. To develop it, examine your biases, become curious about others’ experiences and ask for feedback on how you impact others.
Dr. Richard Davidson believes we are prosocial at birth and have innate basic goodness. In infants, we have the “seeds of empathy” and continue to become empathetic throughout our lives. He did a study where he had scans and metrics of biology to reflect participant’s behavior. His experiment was having a randomized controlled trial. For two weeks, participants would engage in 30 minutes of compassion practices each day. They scanned the participants before and after. There were “objective changes in the brain” shown by the MRI and more prosocial behavior. He notes that we feel better doing good.
According to Dr. Dan Siegel, there’s “me” and “we,” but put together it becomes MWE. That’s because there’s no true separation between ourselves and others when looked through an empathetic lens. Empathy is about emotional resonance. You take on the feelings, perspective and understanding of another’s experience. Empathy leads to compassion. Compassion is when you not only feel for another person’s experience, but you feel the desire to help them. The third stage is action, or when you act to alleviate suffering in another. Ultimately, the actions you take come back to you making you feel better as well. You heal yourself by healing others. That’s why MWE is so important. Dr. Siegel says, “It’s the integrated self from which empathy blossoms.” Empathy is also not sympathy. Sympathy is pity or feeling sorry for someone. Empathy is much deeper.
There are three types of empathy:
- Cognitive Empathy: Figuring out why someone is feeling a certain way.
- Emotional Empathy: Taking on someone’s feelings.
- Empathic Concern or Compassion: Wanting them to feel better.
How do we empathize? There are two theories. The first is the Simulation Theory. When we witness another person experience an emotion, we “simulate” the same emotion and feel it ourselves. Mirror neurons fire, and the medial prefrontal cortex is activated. The other theory is the Theory of the Mind. Psychology Today defines it as “the ability to understand what another person is thinking and feeling based on rules for how one should think and feel.”
Empathy is most needed in situations of suffering. Whether you or another is suffering, empathy drives you to make changes. Instead of asking “Why?” about such suffering, you start to ask how you can move through it. It often occurs when you see something unfair. According to Lori Deschene, founder of Tiny Buddha, “Studies have shown that the reward centers of our brains activate when we recognize fairness, even when it pertains to someone else. When we witness unfairness, it triggers our amygdala, the primitive part of the brain that controls fear and anger.” That means it serves self-interest to respond to unfairness.
The goal is to have a more empathic world. A good deed must be authentic and resonate with your values. Empathy isn’t always easy though. Sometimes, it can lead to burnout and codependency. That’s why empathy without expectations is crucial. Know you can’t save everyone but that you can hold space for them. Holding space is listening without judgment. It’s showing up for another. It’s finding common humanity so we can all heal.
Adam Galinsky has found that if someone is in power, they have less perspective. But if they do perspective-taking exercises, they become more empathetic. Justice then can be served. Dr. Jamil Zaki says, “Oftentimes in settings like conflict resolution, the idea is let’s have each party have equal time. But it turns out that there’s a more powerful way to do perspective-taking when there are pre-existing imbalances of power, because people in disadvantaged positions tend to already know a lot about the perspective of those in power.”
When someone is in power and is said to be the perpetrator or benefitter of unjust systems, they are more likely to resist empathy. That’s because they don’t want to experience self-blame. But we must trade ego for empathy. While power may erode empathy in some cases, it’s important we all take a look at our privilege.
There are some practices to develop empathy in everyday life. They are as follows:
A meditation involving “metta” or loving-kindness is necessary to increase empathy. You start by receiving loving-kindness for yourself. Then, you send loving-kindness to loved ones. Next, you send loving-kindness to neutral people which could be an acquaintance or someone you have yet to get to know. Lastly, you send loving-kindness to all living beings. Think of the entire earth. Everyone on it. Send out the love to everyone.
For the specific phrases, go here. You can do this anytime when you want to be more empathic!
- Listen without distraction.
- Don’t interrupt.
- Repeat their experiences back to them.
- Ask more questions about their experiences to gain better understanding.
- Hold space with them and be a safe zone.
- Don’t assume anything. Listen instead.
- Imagine what it’s like to be them.
- Use empathetic statements.
Some empathy statements can be as follows:
- You did your best.
- I understand this was difficult for you.
- It feels hard because it is hard.
- Everyone makes mistakes.
- I can’t imagine how you feel but I would like to listen.
- Your pain is valid.
- What do you need?
Conflict Resolution—Two Sides to Every Story
This exercise is an adaptation from coworkers roleplaying and analyzing a customer’s dissatisfaction.
- 2 People Needed
- The first person should describe a conflict they once had or are having. They would describe the conflict from their own point of view. This conflict would be with a person not involved in role playing scenarios but about that person’s perspective. The second person would be an outsider to the conflict.
- The second person would imagine the dissatisfied customer’s point of view (or person with whom the original argument is with). They would explain why they felt this way. They would talk from that person’s perspective.
- The two participants would analyze reasons for why the dissatisfied customer or angry person felt this way, its impact and why it might be understandable.
- This point is to develop empathy and resolve the conflict with the help of an outsider. This can be done in any setting or situation.
Empathy for the earth and all its inhabitants (human and nonhuman like)
Empathy shouldn’t just be for humans, but for all animals and the earth. We must take care of this planet. We must reverse the damages done. We must use the good that is happening already to make sure people change how things are. Monkeys also have mirror neurons fire when they emphasize with another being. In 1964, Jules Masserman at Northwestern University made a discovery in animal empathy. Greater Good Berkley says, “rhesus monkeys refused to pull a chain that delivered food to themselves if doing so gave a shock to a companion. One monkey stopped pulling the chain for 12 days after witnessing another monkey receive a shock. Those primates were literally starving themselves to avoid shocking another animal.” Apes, chimpanzees and other animals also show empathic qualities.
Animals also help people develop empathy. In Ellie Laks’s book, My Gentle Barn, she discusses how her animal sanctuary, The Gentle Barn, partners with humans who have also been abused and neglected. In it, she says, “My next group of at-risk girls did better. One of the girls lingered for a long while with her face nuzzled into Buddha’s soft fur, and Buddha swung her head around and encircled the girl in the cow hug. I saw the glint of tears in the girl’s eyes afterward, and I knew she got it. I made sure to tell her before she left that day how proud I was of her. If these kids could start there, by accepting love from a cow, maybe they could accept love from other human beings, and just maybe one day learn to love themselves.” This is just one example of how having empathy for animals can change the people caring for them.
One way to help the animals and the planet is our food choices. Famous animal rights activist, John Oberg, says to Forbes, “Anyone who witnesses animal cruelty immediately and inherently knows it’s unacceptable. What it took me a long time to realize was that the best way to put my compassion for animals into action is by altering my behavior in a way that positively impacts animals. Therefore, I choose to not eat animals. Eating more plant-based food is an incredibly impactful way to put our love and appreciation for animals into action.”
Sydney Fox, regional field officer for The Humane League, also says to Forbes, “Working in animal rights has made me a more empathic person because I’m constantly thinking about the billions of other beings we share this planet with and what their lives look and feel like. I can’t turn away from the fact that our desires affect others, and I wouldn’t want to because I understand what it’s like to suffer in silence and I don’t want anyone, human or not, to go through that.”
In David Attenborough’s documentary, A Life on Our Planet, he states that “the planet can’t support billions of meat eaters.” There’s a connection between helping animals and helping the environment. Empathy reduces animal suffering and makes us more sustainable. All it takes is to see that we are all connected.
Emulating Empathic Leaders in Human Rights
The holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel, address, “Hope, Despair and Memory” in 1986 when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Price says, “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.”
He largely spoke about how the inverse of empathy, indifference, was the real enemy. He wrote the book, Night, based on his experience at Auschwitz. He used his voice to show people the horrors of indifference and how ordinary people carried out such horrific acts. He said indifference never helps the victim, always the perpetrator. He spoke out for victims of oppression all over the world and used his story to shed light on the need for empathy.
In 1915, Gandhi decided to experience poverty for himself by immersing himself into it. This was to develop empathy. He also said, “I am a Muslim! And a Hindu, and a Christian and a Jew—and so are all of you!” He wanted people to see how we are all the same. He wanted peace.
He used nonviolent resistance to help India become free of British rule. He used finding common humanity with others to develop this empathy and help others feel it too.
Nelson Mandela was in prison for 27 years to then become the President of South Africa in a democratic election in which he opposed apartheid. When released from prison, he did not turn to hate but became a great leader. In Long Walk to Freedom, he says, “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.
Roy Isacowitz says, “What we can all learn from Mandela is the importance of being human, not of being right. He was a man of deep empathy; able to look at his opponents during the negotiations over South Africa’s future and see human beings; people with their own histories and myths; their own hurts and their own desire for dignity. He recognized the common humanity in all people, even his enemies.”
Tarana Burke is the “Me Too” movement founder and coiner of the phrase. “Me Too” is about sexual assault survivors finding solidarity with each other and sharing their stories.
“Empowerment through empathy,” is her motto. Often sexual assault survivors are “othered” when they tell their stories to non-survivors. This results in them feeling alone or not seeking help. Finding others who understand you is an empowering experience. That’s why “Me Too” is such a powerful phrase. It’s not just one person coming forward. It’s millions. It’s a movement.
Many people choose victim blaming over believing the survivor. Empathy and showing connection between survivors is meant to end that. It’s meant to confront the patriarchy and power systems at play. It’s meant to hold the perpetrator accountable. And it’s not just for women. It’s for anyone who has experienced abuse. Burke tells Elle, “It’s bigger than any of our lives, it’s for whoever it is for.”
In the early 20th century, Beatrice Webb started the tradition of social reformers spending time in poverty to learn the struggles of one in such a plight. She did this and worked in a textile factory, even though she was born into wealth. Her empathy immersion led her to campaign for better factory conditions and union work.
John Howard Griffin was a white man who dyed his skin black in 1959. He spent six weeks traveling under the guise of being a black man. He experienced the effects of segregation and racism. Even though what he did was controversial in taking on that identity and speaking out for black people, he did so alongside other black leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. and helped black voices to become heard. He used this to shed light on racism since many black leaders were struggling to get their voices out there. He published his experiences and became an activist.
The Rosenhan experiment is when a man named Rosenhan and other associates became pseudopatients of the mental health system. They pretended to have hallucinations for their admissions. Once admitted, they dropped the act and acted normally, as though the hallucinations stopped. They were diagnosed as schizophrenic in remission. They could only get a release on their own (or with a lawyer on standby) and did so by admitting to be mentally ill and taking antipsychotics. They noted dehumanization and other abuses in the system. This led to mental health system reforms. There are some criticisms to this study, but also many more conducted like this which helped show the experience of patients in the mental health system.
Amelia Abreu says that she actually does not “try on” disability to build empathy in her design processes when it comes to usability and accessibility and that no one should try to go that route. Although it’s important to have empathy for a disabled person, the right way to go about it isn’t to take it on yourself. Some researchers have participants “submerge their hands in ice water to simulate motor impairment.” Another example is having able-bodied people travel with a borrowed wheelchair as a way to create accessibility such as ramps. Simulation as empathy building can be shortsighted, or like a “stunt” where people try on a disability then go back to their regular routines. It also only focuses on short term solutions for the most part. Research shows that instead of empathy, people experience pity for the disabled person. They may even feel fearful towards that person and remain an outsider to the actual experience of being disabled. To mimic a person’s disability for a few minutes diminishes that disabled person’s long term coping mechanisms and innovation techniques.
Instead of experimental empathy in this case, it is recommended by Dr. Michele Nario-Redmond to have equitable relationships with disabled people and to learn from them rather than take on the role yourself. That’s how you can be a true ally.
Talk to disabled people and remember there is diversity in experiences as well. Gregory Mansfied, disabled lawyer and disability rights activist, puts it this way: “Why do nondisabled people have such a hard time accepting that disabled people, and only disabled people, are the ones who determine how we identify ourselves?”
If you find yourself uncertain about how to be more empathic, know that you can’t pour from an empty cup. What would you do if someone was in your position? What compassion would you show them that you should show yourself? When you realize that you are worthy of empathy too, you can create a more empathic world.