Lessons in Empathy

Unstuck recently posted some great lessons on empathy:

Empathy lesson 1: Slow down and put yourself in a neutral state of mind.
The brain is pre-set for empathy. There’s a section called the supramarginal gyrus where the capacity for empathy and compassion resides. The scientists who discovered this in 2013 also learned that the brain does not activate empathy if 1. we’re forced to make quick decisions and 2. our current emotional state is the opposite of the other person’s (I’m having a good day; nothing is going right for you).

Empathy lesson 2: Consciously ask yourself, “How might this person think and feel about this?”
Researchers have also learned that people with low empathy tendencies (such as narcissists) can increase their ability to step outside of themselves when directed to look at a situation from another’s point of view.

Empathy lesson 3: Exercise your mind in ways that help empathy occur more naturally.
Science has known for more than 100 years that the brain is “plastic,” meaning it can reorganize itself and make new connections. Now, several recent studies have found that meditation can grow fibers that connect separate areas of the brain. This interconnectedness builds “the gateway of empathy and compassion through mindful meditation,” says Dr. Dan Seigal, executive director of the Mindsight Institute. The loving-kindness meditation, in particular, helped direct the brain’s attention to a more compassionate mindset.

How to build an empathy habit
Meditation can pave a wider gateway to our empathy, but like guest-speaking at an event, we need to know what to do once we get there. So let’s break empathy down into five areas that are practicable. After awhile, those pieces should naturally put themselves back together again.

1. Understand yourself. Before we can extend empathy to someone else, it helps to be in touch with our own experiences and emotions, and what they’ve taught us. A shining example of this is Zak Ebrahim, who outed himself at TED 2014 as the peace-loving son of a terrorist. Throughout his childhood, he was bullied for his appearance. This, he says, “created a sense of empathy in me toward the suffering of others.” (You can watch his talk here.)

2. Listen fully. When you follow these rules, you’ll hear more:
• Let the other person do most of the talking.
• Look at the speaker.
• Don’t interrupt but do make encouraging responses and nods.
• Ask questions that allow the speaker to expand on the topic.

3. Recognize the unspoken. Humans speak volumes with their eyes and facial expressions (ever notice someone whose mouth is smiling but her eyes aren’t?). Test your eye IQ with this simple, but not so easy, eye-reading test. Also look for microexpressions that occur in less than a second and reveal how someone is feeling at that moment. This guide will help you read them.

4. Reserve judgment. Put aside your point of view so you can consciously hear and see the situation from someone else’s. You don’t have to agree with the other person, but you do need to accept what is, rather than focus on what you think it should be. If you find yourself lapsing into judgment mode, switch to curiosity and try to get a better understanding of the situation.

5. Acknowledge. The goal is to let the speaker know that you’ve heard and understood what he’s saying. This usually includes acknowledging feelings (“that sounds hard,” “you seem overwhelmed”) as well as beliefs. This encourages the other person to continue to open up. NB: Acknowledging never involves giving advice, changing the topic, or disapproving.

You can practice these empathy interactions with a friend by sharing experiences and thoughts with other each that you might not ordinarily reveal.

Ask your partner some of the questions below or any from this list designed by social psychology researcher Arthur Aron to foster closeness by building empathy. Allow yourself to be vulnerable and, in turn, listen without judgment:

• What do you feel most grateful for in your life?
• If you could change anything about the way you were raised, what would it be?
• Is there something that you’ve dreamed of doing for a long time? Why haven’t you done it?
• What is an embarrassing moment in your life?
• What is a problem you’re dealing with right now that you wish you had help with?

The more you practice empathy, the stronger those muscles become until you can count on them to help you — and others — in any stuck moment.

What do you do when you see a homeless person?

It’s hard to know how to respond when you see a homeless person.  Do you ignore them and just keep walking (they probably aren’t really homeless in the first place and just trying to scam you)? Do you buy them some food, cause you don’t want them to buy drugs or alcohol? Do you give them money? Do you stop and chat?  

I don’t think there is ever really a clear cut answer as to how to respond.  People will disagree as to what the right thing to do is.  At Urban Seed we try and challenge people to think about it from a different point of view.  Do we really know what it is like to be homeless and what you might need if you are homeless?  Would it matter if we gave them money and they went and bought drugs or alcohol?  What do we buy with our money?  Does anyone tell us how we are to spend our money?  What would it mean if we acknowledged the homeless person? If we smiled at them? Talked to them about their day? 

Roman Krznaric (a cultural thinker and writer on the art of living.  A founding faculty member of The School of Life in London, who advises organisations including Oxfam and the United Nations on using empathy and conversation to create social change), believes that empathy and empathic thinking can create social change.  He says that empathy is more than just sympathy.  It is the ability to powerfully imagine what it would be like to be in the shoes of another.  In a recent  blog post he challenges us to empathise with the telesales caller.  He suggests that by merely imagining what the job might be like for them (made easier for him as he once was a telesales caller himself) and engaging in conversation with them will powerful revolutionise the world.  

“So while part of me wants to immediately press the red button and end the call, I do my best to focus on the caller and treat them with decency. In an effort to make a personal connection, I sometimes find out their name and where they are phoning from, which can lead to surprising – if usually short – conversations about their lives, and my own. I nearly always tell them that I know what their job is like, because I’ve done it too, and I wish them well with the rest of their calls. Imagining myself into their lives and showing a little respect is the least I can do to bridge our faceless digital divide.

Such brief encounters with strangers may, at first glance, seem trivial affairs. But I believe they are the beginnings of a revolution that can weave the world together into an invisible tapestry of human connection.”

 

What would it mean if were to apply this same thinking and acting when we see a homeless person?  Maybe next time you think just acknowledging or smiling at a homeless person is pointless act, you might think twice.  

Roman Krznaric challenges us in our response to the homeless people we see:

It is important to understand what empathy is and is not. If you see a homeless person living under a bridge you may feel sorry for him and give him some money as you pass by. That is pity or sympathy, not empathy. If, on the other hand, you make an effort to look at the world through his eyes, to consider what life is really like for him, and perhaps have a conversation that transforms him from a faceless stranger into a unique individual, then you are empathising. 

 

Empathy vs Sympathy

Shame and empathy researcher Dr.Brené Brown explaining the difference between empathy and sympathy.

“The truth is, rarely can a response make something better — what makes something better is connection.”

I bought smokes and coke for my homeless friends…

Just last week I bought one of my friends a pack of cigarettes and my other friend a can of coke.
Both these friends are addicts.  And both these friends are homeless.

Should I have done this? Was there a better a way to spend my money on my friends?

Sure neither cigarettes or coke are good for you.  Maybe the coke is the lesser of these 2 evils, but the amount of coke my friend consumes means it’s probably just as bad as the cigarettes my other friends smokes.

Maybe I should have bought my friends something useful and beneficial?

But that assumes I KNOW what they want or need.  What I may see as useful may be particularly un-useful to them.

I once walked past a man begging outside a fast food joint.  Another man went into the restaurant and come out with a burger and handed it to the ‘beggar’.  The ‘beggar’ muttered under his breathe ‘that’s the 10th burger I’ve received today, I don’t need a burger I need money for a room to stay.’  To me this powerfully illustrates how we can’t assume what another person needs or wants until we have looked at life from their perspective.

If look at my own spending habits, I’m not sure I always buy things for myself that are useful or beneficial. I do it anyway because I WANT to and for that moment it makes me happy.  Sure maybe I have the right to because it’s MY money and sure maybe the things I buy wont kill me…but is there really a big difference?  Are our motives are the same…?

You see I bought these ‘drug’s’ of choice for my friends because I wanted to a do a nice thing for them; without judging what they want or deem as useful or beneficial –   gift if you like.

Maybe that wasn’t a smart or wise thing to do from my perspective.  But when I took the time to look at things from their perspective it seemed like the right thing to do.

The Power of Outrospection

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=BG46IwVfSu8
img-thingEmpathy isn’t just something that expands your moral universe. Empathy is something that can make you a more creative thinker, improve your relationships, can create the human bonds that make life worth living. But, more than that, empathy is also about social change — radical social change.

-Roman Krnaric

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=icIlUdTEQnU?wmode=transparent&autohide=1&egm=0&hd=1&iv_load_policy=3&modestbranding=1&rel=0&showinfo=0&showsearch=0&w=500&h=284]

Empathy.