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This article is the fourth in a series about harnessing the power of Emotional Contagion in order to improve our lives. The first article describes what emotional contagion is and the research that led to its discovery. The second article discusses the importance of emotional contagion for human survival from an evolutionary perspective. The third article offers seven tips for managing one’s own emotions and prepares the reader for this next step. Please read those articles before proceeding.

The first step for acquiring Emotional Intelligence is to improve your ability to recognize, understand, express and manage your own emotions. This will help you gain awareness of how your emotions affect those around you. That was the focus of the last article, “Seven Tips for Improving Your Emotional Intelligence,” which laid the foundation for the next step in building strong Emotional Intelligence. Now we’re ready to discuss how to improve your ability to recognize and understand the emotions of others. This is called empathy.

We all have the capacity for empathy

The Key to Emotional Intelligence

Empathy is a key element in Emotional Intelligence. It is the link between self and others. It allows us to step imaginatively into the shoes of another person and understand their feelings and perspectives. Empathy is a powerful tool in relating to other people. It is the most important skill you can practice, and yet, research is showing that empathy appears to be in a freefall. This is the very reason why it’s time to re-focus on enhancing it in ourselves and in our communities.

What is Empathy?

Empathy is the ability to identify with or understand the perspective, experiences, or motivations of another individual and to comprehend and share another individual’s emotional state.

Empathy has been defined as ‘I feel with you’, as distinct from compassion or sympathy, which has been defined as ‘I feel for you.’

In order to improve your empathy, it helps to understand how it works. I described in previous articles in this series what neuroscientists are calling the “empathy circuit” in the brain. Empathy involves the two branches of emotional contagion, primitive emotional contagion and cognitive contagion. (See Ornish Living article, Seven Tips for Improving Your Emotional Intelligence)

Empathy also involves being able to participate in the other person’s emotional experience without becoming part of it. This means having the capacity to communicate this understanding of their feelings and their cause back to the person.

Why is Empathy Important?

People with good empathy skills:

Empathy is one of the most important abilities that help people understand each other. It is critical to building bridges between individuals and to establishing healthy relationships.  We all have the capacity for empathy. Part of empathy is natural and can be honed, and the rest can be learned. Below are eight practical tips for improving empathy, but let’s understand why we are currently devaluing it.

Why We Devalue Empathy

Author and child psychologist Michele Borba comments that we as a society have been devaluing empathy. As a result, it has been plummeting in recent years. She says, “Our culture has undergone a seismic shift.” It’s not surprising that some of the culprits are technology and the pressure to succeed. “Self-promotion, personal branding, and self-interest at the exclusion of others’ feelings, needs, and concerns,” she argues, is “permeating our culture and slowly eroding our children’s character.”

According to a recent study at the University of Michigan, college students today show 40% less empathy than students in the 1980s and 1990s. The study did not evaluate why students are less empathetic, but it speculates that the “explosion” in social networking has caused college students to spend less face-to-face time with each other. And this doesn’t apply only to college students. Have you ever observed people having dinner together at a table, prime time for in-person conversations, and yet each is staring down at their phone?

Another study at UC Berkeley found that the wealthier you are, the less empathic you are likely to be. And, equally alarming, one in five top corporate executives resemble psychopaths who are devoid of the ability to empathize – a proportion similar to that among prisoners – according to another recent study.

People who don’t exhibit empathy are usually viewed as cold and self-absorbed, and they often lead isolated lives, despite the size of their social circle. The negative impact of social isolation on one’s health and happiness was addressed in a previous Ornish Living article, Five Ways to Enhance Social Connection.

Tips for Improving Empathy

“Listening with your whole attention in order to understand rather than respond is the best gift you can give anyone.” – Johnathan Lehmann

1.Be Fully Present

Stop what you are doing, put away your phone, and turn away from your computer while you are interacting with someone. Give that person your full attention. A recent study showed that couples who perceive empathy in one another are more satisfied with their relationships and have lower rates of conflict and depression.

2. Become a Fluent Listener

Listen and don’t interrupt. Most people are thinking how they are going to respond while the other person is still speaking. Fluent listening means being totally focused on what the other person is saying. Listen for the feeling in what the other person is saying, even if they are not expressing it clearly. “Listen” to both the verbal and non-verbal information being conveyed. Fluent listening requires sufficient connection to our own emotions and to our experiences in order to know what it feels like to be the other person on the inside. As you listen, it is important to monitor yourself to ensure that you avoid making judgments or criticisms of what the other person is saying. Your role is to try to understand how it would feel to be where the other person is.

3. Imagine From the Other Person’s Perspective

Without judgment, imagine yourself as the other person in a situation, as opposed to just imagining yourself in their situation. This shift in thinking can help you act with more empathy.

4. Ask Yourself What You are Feeling

As the other person is talking, understand that you are automatically “catching” the emotion underlying what they are saying—primitive emotional contagion. If you are unsure of what they may be feeling, try getting more information by asking questions. Pay attention to your “gut” response. Attempt to feel, identify and name what they are feeling. Continue to practice emotional awareness on yourself with the seven tips from the previous OL article. This will help you access and label the emotional reactions you are having in response to what the other person is saying.

5. Validate and Test Your Instinct

Reflect back what the other person has said and how you experience their feelings. This will let them know that you are trying to understand them. They will nod in agreement if you are correct, or they will appreciate your effort to understand and they will give more information that helps tune you in more accurately.

6. Make Yourself Vulnerable

The best way to gain trust and have others open up to you is to share some of your feelings with them, your fears, your joys and your sorrows. Empathy is a two-way street. By showing some vulnerability you will come across as more human. This will give others permission to share more of themselves, allowing for the possibility of developing deeper bonds.

7. Read Literature

“You never really understand another person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it,” wrote Harper Lee in To Kill A Mockingbird. Reading books and watching films is a great way to take imaginative journeys into other people’s lives. A 2013 study found that participants who read literary fiction, not just genre fiction or non-fiction, scored significantly higher on a measure of empathy.

8. Spend Time with Babies

What’s better than a baby’s smile? Babies are some of the greatest teachers of empathy. They are not afraid to be vulnerable, and they show their emotions with innocent, cherubic clarity.

We all need at least a little empathy to be happy and healthy, so give these tips a try.

How did using some of these tips improve your life or the lives of those around you?

Contributed by

Bob Avenson
Senior Faculty - Group Support

Friendship is when people know all about you but like you anyway.

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