Building empathy

We all have the ability to be empathetic, but how can we make sure that we’re tuning into this innate skill and projecting it into the world around us?

CREDIT: This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared on Happiful

Is empathy an ‘everyday reality’? And is it a skill you can learn? The answer to both of these questions is ‘Yes’, but this deeply instinctive skillset is being under-utilised across all walks of our society. So, what is empathy, and how can we increase our use of it?

Often mistaken as a skill we are born with, empathy is a natural ability we all possess, that helps us to see the world through the eyes of others. That said, we do have to recognise the need to practice empathy if we are to bring more of it into our daily lives – empathy may be something we are born with, but using it is a choice.

Like so many things in life, the decision to empathise with others is the only thing between talking about a more empathetic relationship and actually having one. Empathy is a skill deeply embedded in us as human beings, within the cerebral cortex part of our brains yet, often, we aren’t activating the power of this ability, and we are now seeing a thirty-year decline in levels of empathy worldwide.

The impact on our health and wellbeing is vast, from higher levels of anxiety and depression, to deep levels of loneliness and burnout. Yet, with a little more focus, and a little more time, we can ensure this is a skillset we use to the advantage of those around us, as well as ourselves, to reverse these detrimental trends; after all, deeply connecting to those we share our time with is evolution’s way of ensuring we thrive as a society.

Empathy has now gone mainstream. In 2020, we are more aware than ever about the need to be deeply connected to those around us, whether this relates to a romantic relationship, our friendships, our colleagues or to our parental roles. Empathy is one of civilisation’s oldest traits and instinctive behaviours, and it doesn’t only deepen the quality of our relationships but, as proven by neuro- scientific studies, it also makes our relationships more rewarding emotionally.

So how might you make every-day empathy your everyday reality?

Practice live listening

How often do you find yourself listening, but not really taking note of what the other person is saying? Your body may have been in the same room, but your attention is elsewhere. Use your whole being in this process to ensure your body language shows that you are leaning in and interested, your eye contact remains focused and your attention is towards the speaker.

Offer interpersonal focus

We know that when people feel understood, stress levels are lower, immunity is, therefore, higher, and our perceived safety and security goes up. Understanding the perspective of another not only helps you to gain clarity and context, it also creates confidence and calm in those you are connecting with. When people feel they are heard, they feel better – in fact we all feel better.

Don’t underestimate small gestures in empathy-building

The small and humble cannot be underestimated. Showing you care with a ‘Thank you’, a cup of tea, or a hand-written card all offer a sign that you naturally understand the receiver. These tiny gestures so often prove far deeper connectivity than a sweeping grand gesture ever could.

Be curious

Inquiry drives connection. Start conversations and provoke sharing by asking questions to deepen your understanding of those around you; the most empathetic of people are nearly always natural inquirers.

Be patient

Allow people to fully finish their sentences and thoughts. Don’t interrupt, and be patient when it comes to moments of silence. Our instinct is to jump in and complete the story, but a moment of silence often encourages people to share more insightfully than they perhaps would otherwise have done.

Oh, and put your ‘phone away – this could be the most critical of all our everyday tips! After all, if your senses are more engaged with social media than they are with society, we have a far steeper climb when it comes to engaging with real empathy in the real world.

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