Science says empathy is a skill. Here are 5 ways to get better at it

Empathy is one of those words that, in 2019, can force a person to confront dueling sides of their humanity. 

On one hand, you might identify as an empathetic person, open to feeling another person’s pain. You may worry that we’re losing our capacity as a species to care for strangers amidst intense and sometimes violent political, social, and cultural polarization. Then again, the prospect of empathizing with, say, racists and neo-Nazis who get flattering news coverage is a line you’re unwilling to cross. Perhaps, even if you still believe in empathy, there are just moments when you see someone in need and, for whatever reason, can’t muster a compassionate response.

In other words, trying to be an empathetic person feels at turns gratifying, exasperating, and exhausting. Jamil Zaki, author of the new book The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World, totally gets it. 

Zaki, a professor of psychology at Stanford University, has studied empathy for the past 15 years, grappling with its many complexities along the way. But a few years ago, Zaki began feeling that people seemed increasingly ready to surrender empathy in favor of anger, judgment, and tribal loyalty. His new book is a scientific exploration of how we can short-circuit that impulse and instead embrace empathy as a skill to be honed.

“The overarching technique is empowering people and getting them to realize the fact that even though empathy is difficult, it doesn’t mean they’re hopeless,” says Zaki. 

While Zaki says The War for Kindness isn’t a self-help manual, it does contain practical insights about how to cultivate and maintain empathy over time. 

No matter how you struggle with empathy, these 5 strategies can help: 

1. Understand that empathy is a skill, not a fixed trait. 

Though humans do inherit a genetic predisposition toward empathy and generosity, Zaki says it’s a mistake to believe that one’s capacity for both traits are permanently stuck at a certain level. In fact, research shows that our experiences influence our empathy. 

Children whose parents display that characteristic tend to show more concern for strangers, act more generously toward classmates, and are more able to perceive others’ emotions compared to children their own age. Meanwhile, causing people pain can make it harder for someone to care about others, but those who experience suffering often become more empathetic. 

The bottom line, says Zaki, is that experiences can boost or decrease a person’s empathy. 

2. Increase your contact with “outsiders.”

This strategy might seem obvious to anyone who’s ever heard a literature professor or actor talk about the virtues of seeing life through someone else’s eyes, but research does indicate that people who spend more time with “outsiders” — those who belong to different groups than you do — harbor less prejudice. Zaki argues that you can practice this by literally getting to know folks outside your peer and social group and seeking out fiction and non-fiction stories that allow you to take a “mental trip” into someone else’s world. 

There are, however, important caveats to keep in mind. Zaki doesn’t believe empathizing with someone means condoning or approving their behavior, actions, or views. Additionally, the act of establishing contact with an outsider — particularly if you’re someone who is perceived as holding more social and political power — can be exhausting for them. 

“People from majority or high-power groups often walk away from these sit-downs with a warmer view of the other side,” writes Zaki. “Minority or low-power individuals, though, often don’t. They already understand the majority’s perspective, because they have to in order to survive.” 

One researcher who studies this dynamic found that programs meant to increase contact, and therefore empathy, were most effective when they “reversed the existing power structure, rather than ignored it,” writes Zaki. 

For example, when the researcher paired Mexican immigrants and white Americans for a storytelling exercise, the Mexican participants felt better about their white counterparts when they could play the role of “sender,” which meant sharing their hardships and hearing their partner summarize them. When the white participants acted as the sender, however, their attitudes about Mexican immigrants improved but their counterparts felt worse. 

So if you’re considering in-person contact as a means of increasing empathy, try to avoid replicating hierarchies that can make someone an outsider in the first place. This can mean listening  in order to understand the other person’s experiences rather than focusing on sharing your own.  

One way to assess your own self-awareness, says Zaki, is to ask yourself why you’re pursuing a certain social interaction. If you’re only hoping to feel like a good person at the end of it, it’s unlikely you’re genuinely open to the experience. 

3. Practice self-compassion. 

“I’m not arguing that empathy is the cure-all or even the right state to be all the time,” says Zaki. “The optimal version of human empathy is not one in which we feel everyone’s pain all the time and deplete ourselves into nothingness.”  

“I’m not arguing that empathy is the cure-all or even the right state to be all the time.”

Such declarations might come as a relief to people who feel guilty when their empathy ebbs and flows. Zaki worries that such shame can actually diminish our desire to feel for others. Instead, he champions self-compassion, which not only provides a tool to modulate empathy as necessary, but also makes it easier to express that emotion. 

That self-compassion can be cultivated through meditation. When Zaki visits a neonatal intensive care unit to see how the hospital staff cope with unthinkable losses, he notes that one caring nurse, who practices meditation to stay grounded in her own reality, uses the mantra, “This is not my tragedy.” 

Though research on such “empathy tuning” techniques is in its early stages, Zaki believes that being able to mediate one’s emotions is key to sustaining high levels of empathy over long periods or in demanding circumstances. 

4. Use the internet wisely. 

Zaki wants readers to realize that people are constantly pushed and pulled toward or away from empathy thanks to forces beyond their awareness. You can definitely count the internet among some of the most powerful of those factors, which Zaki says can amplify actions and behaviors we aren’t proud of.  

In some cases, the internet can enhance empathy by bringing people into contact with outsiders and their stories, or by helping people build caring connections amongst each other. In other instances, the internet can quickly shred those relationships by elevating discourse and commentary that prompt a vicious cycle of outrage. 

While anger may be warranted and appropriate in plenty of situations, the internet’s persuasive design takes advantage of those instincts with its scrolling features, notifications, and instant feedback. If you feel increasingly ready to engage people in what effectively become digital shouting matches, and find it harder to stay silent or reflect before commenting, chances are the way you’re using the internet is affecting your ability to empathize.  

5. Help build empathetic systems. 

Zaki says that people can channel their empathy into efforts to build “kind systems.” This can mean changing workplaces and public institutions by focusing on ways to make kindness an expectation that’s officially recognized and even rewarded. For example, Zaki highlights a police training program in Washington State that teaches cadets how to act fairly, and he describes how dozens of schools have adopted a “kindness curriculum” for their classrooms. 

“We are not merely individuals fighting to empathize in a world of cruelty.”

“We are not merely individuals fighting to empathize in a world of cruelty,” he writes. “We are also communities, families, companies, teams, towns, and nations who can build kindness into our culture, turning it into people’s first option. We don’t just respond to norms; we create them.”

Such an approach also recognizes that individual empathy can only go so far, and Zaki believes it’s no replacement for fixing big, structural problems like inequality. 

While there are limits to what empathy can achieve, Zaki also knows we can’t abandon it altogether. 

“If we do give up on it,” he says, “we’ll have lost something more than what we could gain through most political victories.” 

Read More

Leave a Comment