Updated: Nov 17, 2022
After two years of the pandemic, it’s evident that as humans we grew accustomed to feelings of isolation, stress and emotional exhaustion. Fueled alongside the ever-growing advances in this digital age, it seems as if we humans are becoming more and more distant; often numb to those around us and overwhelmed by the constant hurdles life throws at us. During these trying times, we can build resilience and support by practicing empathy, for ourselves and others.
In a nutshell, empathy is the capability to understand what someone else is feeling. When we put ourselves in the shoes of others and see life from their perspective -- a situation, a belief, or a struggle-- we are much better equipped to connect with them on a deeper, human level. We often confuse sympathy with empathy when in reality, sympathy is simply an acknowledgement of someone’s feelings, and empathy is understanding why someone might feel a certain way. It is a foundation for kindness and understanding, especially in our day-to-day relationships to understand the needs, experiences and feelings of others. Although it may seem difficult for some to notice and relate to others' feelings, the truth is, empathy isn’t something we are born with, it’s a skill that can be learned, developed and nurtured over time.
Here are five ways you can cultivate empathy in your life:
Talk to people, and not just about the weather
One of the most straightforward ways to practice empathy is sparking conversations with a wide range of people about their feelings and experiences. Because empathy involves trying on new perspectives and stepping into the shoes of others, it’s helpful to get exposed to lifestyles, worldviews and life experiences that may be different from your own. The key is to be genuinely curious, ask open-ended questions, and pay attention to how the other person is feeling-- to their facial expression, body language and tone of voice.
Indulge in fiction
There goes the saying, “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies.” Reading fiction is an incredibly easy and enjoyable way to explore how someone else’s mind works and better understand what shapes their perspective. Studies have shown that people who let their minds wander in literary fiction and imaginative play can increase empathy levels and responses.
So grab that nearest book and get lost in it! Researchers believe that empathy levels will only change if people find themselves emotionally transported into the world of the story.
Be an active listener
Listening is one of the most important skills someone can have. While passive listening allows one to hear and react on cue, active listening involves making a conscious effort to listen attentively to the speaker and imagine the driving emotions behind what is being said. The more you practice active listening, the better you’ll be at reading a person’s emotions through their words, tone, body language, and micro-expressions. This can create positive feelings in the person who is communicating with you; strengthening friendships, work environments and creating a culture of respect and appreciation for those around us.
Becoming curious about ourselves and those around us helps develop empathy in many ways. Curious people ask many questions about a person's life and their own, and while too many pressing questions can feel like an interrogation, being kindly inquisitive can help increase your empathy levels. The more we encourage our own curiosities, the more likely we are to expand our acquaintances and acquire a wider understanding of varying perspectives. So, be curious about the people you meet! The more you learn about how others live and think, the more tools you’ll have available to you for harnessing empathy.
When someone is struggling, they don’t always need someone to swoop in and fix things for them. Oftentimes, all people need is to simply be heard and understood, and their struggle acknowledged…Instead, you can tune into how they’re doing in order to understand what they need and how you can help. After all, that’s what empathy is all about.
This article is brought to you by the Thrive student co-curric (@thrive_collingwood); a movement to support the health and wellbeing of our community through social emotional initiatives. This year, May 2-8 is Canadian Mental Health week, with the overarching theme of empathy. We encourage you all to support one another-- to stop polarizing and start empathizing.