Practicing empathy can be a challenging experience. It is not easy to set aside judgment and attempt to understand opposing views or actions of others. It requires revising specific modes of thinking, such as the tendency to take sides in a conflict or a persistent urge to criticize. As it turns out, many people find empathizing to be problematic and “not worth the mental effort.”
Recently, researchers at Penn State University and the University of Toronto published some significant results from their examination of human behavior as it relates to expressing empathy. “There is a common assumption that people stifle feelings of empathy because they could be depressing or costly, such as making donations to charity,” says lead researcher C. Daryl Cameron, PhD, “But we found that people primarily just don’t want to make the mental effort to feel empathy toward others, even when it involves feeling positive emotions.”
The study was published online in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, and included 11 experiments with more than 1,200 participants. In two of the experiments, there were hopeful findings: Participants who were told they were effective at feeling compassion were more likely to continue expressing empathy within the study parameters. Cameron concluded that, “If we can shift people’s motivations toward engaging in empathy, then that could be good news for society as a whole.”
We are at a critical juncture when empathetic communication skills need to take precedence. One way to build your “empathy muscle” is through acquiring the competence and confidence to have tough conversations with others. Coming to alignment in your relationships can increase emotional resilience and intensify feelings of empathy. Try developing healthier habits of mind that incorporate compassionate responses. It is possible to train your brain for empathy.
Here are some ways to build motivation and positivity that will allow you to express empathy naturally:
It has been proven many times over that you will feel happier when you act in service of others. The first step is to be kind to yourself — that is your “inside game.” Performing acts of kindness for others generates a ripple effect that leads to a more empathetic point of view.
Try to view circumstances from another person’s standpoint. Instead of assuming, stop and take a breath before you react, to gain perspective. You may be behaving in a knee-jerk fashion that comes from a place of judgment. Practice empathy by asking better questions and gain a deeper understanding of others.
Let go of resentment.
When you judge others or hold on to anger, it can show up in your verbal and non-verbal communication. When your thoughts become jaded by resentment, try to be more patient with yourself — and then exercise that patience with others. Remember to forgive, which is the ultimate antidote to bitterness.
Complaining is a trap that many fall into. Be mindful of criticizing others. Focus on providing constructive insight, and work toward contributing to a collaborative solution. Pause before speaking, and consider the impact of voicing your resistance or disparagement. Will it add value to the conversation or will it devalue your relationship?
Nothing expands your capacity for empathy faster than mindfulness meditation. The scientific community now realizes what the ancient yogis knew long ago — quieting the mind is good for you. Just a few of its benefits include greater focus and self-esteem, better relationships, improved resilience, and ultimately more control over your emotions. Try sitting quietly for a few minutes each day and tune in to the sound of your breath — or try this meditation for beginners.